January 4, 2011
Happy New Year!
If you’re saying that to someone in Texas and it’s an odd-numbered year, then you’re also getting ready – whether you know it or not – for the legislative session.
Yeah, it’s that time of every-other-year again, where 181 new, old, genuine and figurative friends get together to pass some laws – some of which will almost certainly mean a lot to you and your family and friends.
I’m hosting an open house on the first day of the session, a week from today. Come by the Capitol office (in room E1.810, in the underground extension just north of the Capitol) anytime on Tuesday, Jan. 11 to meet and greet my staff and me. I hope to see you, next week or any time over the next five months.
This session (which starts a week from today) promises to be especially important because, as you’ve heard, the state is facing a huge budget shortfall – about $20 billion, which would be nearly a quarter of the total budget that the legislature has discretion over.
So that’s a big problem, right? And it’s coming right after a long political campaign where some folks bragged (a lot) about how great the Texas economy is doing?
Those things might make you scratch your head and wonder, if the state is doing so great, how come the state budget looks so bad? What happened?
Well, obviously, it’s more than the recession. I’ve been saying for a while that those in control of state finances have been balancing the budget with debt, diversions and deception. And one of the biggest problems is that information about the state’s budget and finances simply has not been made available to Texans.
These problems have become so big that they just can’t be hidden. And this ought to be the one thing we don’t argue about: the state should be as honest and as open as it possibly can be so that Texans know how their money is being spent, make sure problems aren’t being covered up, and know that the Texas economy is remaining competitive.
This all goes back to the Honesty Agenda that I proposed a couple of months back and is among my top priorities for the session. And there’s a very simple first step we can take toward this openness and accountability – and we can take it almost immediately, in the very first week of the session.
Next week, I’ll propose a change in the Senate rules that will make sure every Texan has the time and ability to read the final version of the budget before it’s passed. Oh, and by the way, so will the senators.
Here’s the problem: Every session, the Texas Senate passes one version of the budget and the House of Representatives passes another. At that point, a few legislators are appointed to what’s known as a Conference Committee, and they get together (often behind closed doors) to add some spending and programs to the budget, remove some investment that some folks care about, and make other changes.
Then, after a month or so of work, the Conference Committee report – which is basically the final draft of the budget – gets filed in both the Senate and the House. And legislators, advocates, the media, and other Texans generally have about 48 hours, if that, to sort through an almost 1,000 page document. Even with the best of intentions and effort, folks are left scrambling to discover what’s been changed, added, subtracted, divided or multiplied as they try to figure out how lots of money covering lots of items – more than $180 billion in the current budget (which includes $87 billion in discretionary money) – will be spent.
Of course, this rush to judgment is usually right at the very tail end of the session, when things are totally nuts because of the final legislative crunch and the hurricane of last minute activity and distractions.
Well, if we’re going to really reform the process and honor the right of Texans to know what their government is doing by making sure budget and fiscal information is readily and widely available, a simple first step would be to give everyone just a little more time – let’s take five days, a simple “business week” – to make sure we’re comfortable with this Conference Committee budget.
Taking one business week would help us all evaluate whether Texas, even in the midst of a tough economy, is maintaining its commitments to schools, health care for seniors, border security, and other moral priorities that will keep Texas economically competitive.
It would allow Texans to see whether the legislature is adopting basic reforms that will open the state’s books to its people, help Texas avoid these budget crises in the future, and eliminate gimmicks, diversions and cost-shifts that might force things like property taxes to go up.
And it would guarantee that we all have enough time to know everything we need to know about how Texas is spending its (make that “our”) money.
The basic truth is that Texas can’t solve this budget crisis without being completely open, honest and accountable about the state’s finances. And this rule change would help achieve that simply by making sure we all – constituents and legislators – have enough time to read the final version of the budget.
This is simple openness, basic honesty, and a fundamental first step toward accountability. It will allow us to know how our money will be spent – before it’s too late.