Sorta Like a Bad Movie

Remember that movie Armageddon?

The one where the giant asteroid was about to crash into the earth? Where some movie stars had to go up in space to blow it up? Where Paris got wiped out anyway, y’know, just because?

That’s a little like what this legislative interim feels like.

The legislature’s out of session and, we’re told, is going to stay that way. The weather’s been its typical springtime beautiful self. Legislative committees are coming out of hibernation for interim hearings.

And everyone’s waking up to news that a big ol’ budget crisis is hurtling right toward the State of Texas. Again.

Anybody have Bruce Willis’ number?

No? Well then, how about we all agree on just three things:

  • Taxpayers should know how every penny they send to Austin is being managed and spent.
  • Middle-class Texans deserve a school system that’s as great as this state.
  • And 45th-best just isn’t good enough.

That would do a lot, as you’ll see, to protect us from the trouble that’s coming.

Texas can do better

Last month, as you faithful Watson Wire readers surely recall, I wrote about some warning signs from the state’s education and health & human services commissioners. One warned that the budget crunch is causing the state to pull back on school accountability standards. The other said Texas might need as much as $17 billion that we don’t have for Medicaid.

Well, it turns out the state’s problems could be even deeper than that.

Last year, those in control of the legislature cut $4 billion that had been promised to Texas schools – going so far as to change the law spelling out that promise.

Another $1.3 billion in grants to school districts – meant for things like early childhood education – also got slashed. Furthermore, the state saved $2.3 billion by using a one-time funding gimmick that’s not going to be available next year.

Add all of that up – restoring the school cuts, patching up the Medicaid budget trickery, and addressing next year’s needs overall – and the state could be starting out more than $20 billion in the hole. That’s right on the heels of a $27 billion budget shortfall that created the big crisis last year.

Worse still, we learned last month that per-student funding has declined to $8,908 per student.  That ranks Texas 45th in the country; the national average is $11,463. The number was so low that it apparently surprised even the Governor.

Texas is better than that.

Reform the budget

Now, the state’s reserve funds will have money – the Rainy Day Fund could have more than $7 billion in it, and a healing economy will provide relief. But it’s going to take an awful lot of prosperity to make up for the lousy decisions that put us in this mess.

We have to devote ourselves to solving these problems by reforming government and creating an honest, transparent, long-term solution that will fund the things Texans rely on. We must move past the old reliance on debt, diversions and deception in balancing the budget, the most recent example of which turned up in this article over the weekend.

And, perhaps most importantly, the blaming, finger-pointing and lack of accountability for these issues has got to end.

Texans are working hard. The Texas economy is getting healthy again. Now’s the time to rebuild and strengthen the middle class in this state. And that means the Texas legislature has got to do better, too.

Hitting the books

We should start by finding a permanent solution to the state’s school funding challenges.

This funding crisis has already prompted hundreds of school districts to sue the state. There’s also going to be a big rally at the Capitol on March 24 to protest the schools cuts – you can learn more about it and sign up here.

And last week, the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House appointed a special committee to study the school finance system.

I’ll be working with those committee members to find solutions and create the schools that Texans and Texas kids deserve. I hope those solutions will start with budget reform – before anyone cuts billions more from public schools or asks for more money, we need to create basic honesty, openness and accountability in the state’s finances.

Like I said, Texas can do better.