April 21, 2011
So the Senate Finance committee signed off today on its draft of the 2012-13 state budget. And before I get into the nitty-gritty (mostly gritty) of it, I really want to thank the members and particularly the Chair, Senator Ogden.
They’ve all worked really hard on this. And as tired as I am right now, I can’t imagine how a lot of them must be feeling.
That said, we need to be honest about what we’re talking about here. This budget proposal really paints a grim picture – one that’s far removed from Texans, their priorities, and their history.
It strips billions of dollars from schools, universities, and millions of Texans who don’t have as much political power in the Capitol as they should.
But even more than that, it just throws a rug over the cracked foundation of the state’s finances. It doesn’t shore up the structural problems that have become an open secret at the Capitol. Nor does it address the shifting sand that’s already threatening to create another budget crisis in two years.
Oh, and it perpetuates many of the short-sighted practices that bear real responsibility for the state’s current budget mess. A lot of us, from both political parties, have been calling for reform of the state’s finances for years. But there’s no significant reform to be found in this proposal.
Yet somehow, in the bizarro world of Texas politics, those in control of the Senate are talking about their budget like it’s some kind of victory. Even some folks who don’t like the plan are hanging their heads and treating it as though it’s the best we can do.
The denial comes from a drama that’s played out in the Capitol over the last several months – one that couldn’t have been scripted much better (although, let’s face it, the plot was pretty predictable).
For weeks, politicians and pundits have focused on a genuinely horrendous plan approved by the Texas House of Representatives to hack away at schools, nursing homes and so many other priorities that Texans hold dear – even knowing that such a devastating proposal would never be approved by the Senate.
So compared to that gore-fest, the milder horror show of the Senate budget must look pretty good, right?
But compared to anything else – Texans’ priorities, Texas’ history, even the status quo – the Senate plan that’s now on the table remains unworthy of this state and its people.
And make no mistake: had we been told back in, say, September that the state was about to take about $4 billion from Texas schools and billions more from universities and the uninsured – all the while using the same debt, diversions and deception that have been a staple of the state’s budget-balancing practices for years – I suspect most of you wouldn’t have called that a “best-case scenario.”
I doubt you’d conclude it was an acceptable solution simply because “it could have been worse.”
No, I’m guessing that you’d have rejected that approach. You’d have called for honesty, accountability and real leadership, even knowing how great the challenge is.
And you’d have faced down those in control and told them to get to work fixing what they’d broken – even if they had to work into the summer to do it.
To understand the mess that’s before the Senate, let’s focus on just one school district – the largest that I represent, and the one my youngest son will graduate from before this budget expires.
Austin ISD is looking at about $100 million in cuts over the next two years under the Senate spending plan.
So the district has already shed more than 100 administrative jobs. It’s announced the elimination of another 1,100 jobs, more than half of them teaching positions. And there are even deeper cuts to come.
Lost teaching jobs, more crowded classrooms, closing schools, deteriorating support for students … These are the results of the Senate spending plan.
These are the consequences of a badly broken promise that the state made to Austin and hundreds of districts like it in 2006 – to protect them from the most harmful aspects of a budget scheme that didn’t come close to balancing.
This is what you face when your state’s school finance system was built on shifting, crumbling sand – and when those responsible for it avoid accountability for fixing it.
In short, this is a disaster. But it isn’t an entirely natural disaster.
I’ve talked and written at length about the debt, diversions and deception that eroded the state’s finances and left Texas thoroughly unprepared for this economic downturn.
Even the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee has pointed out the need for real change in the way the state balances its books. He clearly needs time – and the legislature needs to take the time – to make the improvements we all should know are necessary.
But the Senate budget perpetuates many of the same practices that hobbled it from the start.
It still spends billions more than the state can sustainably pay for.
It still leans on the sorts of one-time revenue tricks that are now being blamed in part for the state’s budget problems.
And worst of all, it contains none of the reforms that the state needs to avoid a repeat of this crisis in two years. Specifically, it fails to address structural problems (such as the 2006 imposition of the Margins Tax) that continue to undermine the budget.
This budget proposal shows that one-time gimmicks have become full-time practices in the Capitol. Unfortunately, reform-driven bills – including what I call my Honesty Agenda – are beginning to die as this legislative session starts to wrap up.
So this Senate spending plan not only fails to end the legislature’s bad budget-writing habits – it perpetuates them.
It not only fails to prepare Texas schoolchildren for the 21st Century economy – it forces schools to take a step backward.
Indeed, the bill’s main selling point seems to be that it’s better than some other, even more unacceptable plan – that it’s good simply by being less bad.
Texas deserves better. But to get it, Texans will have to demand it.
So let’s spread the word to friends, family members and especially our social network connections about this budget and its failures.
Let’s tell those in control to fix the flawed and frenzied process that’s led us to this point. Let’s show them this plan isn’t good enough, and they need to keep working – even into the summer – to come back with a plan that truly represents the priorities of Texans.
And let’s take the time we need to truly solve the real problems facing our state, reform this system that’s failing us, and create a budget that reflects our priorities.