There Must Be Some Kind of Way Out of Here

Well, we finally, mercifully, ended the 82nd Texas Legislative Session.

To commemorate its impending demise (and to have more than a little bit of fun at its expense), last week we tossed around some ideas on Twitter about phrases – using lyrics, song or movie titles – to remember the session by.  Those of you who don’t follow Twitter missed out on some rather creative work.  Things like:

“Little Red Budgette.”  “Axe to the Future.”  “It’s My (Tea) Party, and I’ll Cry if I Want To.”  “The Gropes of Wrath.”  A couple of folks suggested “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

It was fun.  Playing with #sessionnames, I mean.  I can’t really say all of the rest was a pleasant little trip. 

Let us not talk falsely now, the hour’s getting late.

I trust you had a great time celebrating our nation’s (and my son Cooper’s) birthday yesterday.  But I wanted to be sure to direct your attention to a story that ran in the Dallas Morning News about the addiction of those in control to the diversion of state fees that are raised for specific purposes but instead used to balance the budget.  Here’s an excerpt:
Texas lawmakers, who will do almost anything to avoid raising broad-based taxes, balanced the budget this year with one of their favorite flavors of money: dedicated funds.

Budget writers set a record by refusing to spend $4.1 billion raised from fees and taxes that are designated for a particular area — about 40 percent of what’s available from those fees. This let them avoid deeper spending cuts in the overall budget because they could pretend they had that much more in general revenue…
“Our budget situation has gotten out of hand, and we’ve become so dependent on this deception,” said Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, recently chosen as the Senate Democratic leader.
The result is that programs intended to be fed by the designated money, from electricity discounts for the poor to incentives for medical students who practice in areas short of doctors, face deep cuts…
“The state has become like the old drunk who says, ‘I’ll stop this by having one less drink per day,’ but unfortunately can’t even pull that off,” said Watson, who authored a provision now on Perry’s desk that would require Comptroller Susan Combs to publish an annual schedule of unspent fees and taxes once touted as dedicated to certain causes.

To read more, click here (subscription required). 

There’s too much confusion . . . but we got some relief

However, there was some good news right before Sine Die.  Senate Bill 1 – a “must pass” budget bill – passed with a number of provisions from my Honesty Agenda to make Texas government and finances more open and accountable.  I’ve been working on these items for nearly a year, and I’m excited that so many of them are finally on their way to the Governor’s desk.

Here are provisions in that bill that are on their way to becoming law:

LBB meetings: The Legislative Budget Board, known around the Capitol as the “LBB,” will now have to meet at least once a year to get updates on the state’s fiscal condition.  This is a compromise that comes out of Senate Bill 696 to make sure Texans – and their legislators – know more about the state’s fiscal condition when the legislature isn’t in session.  It also dovetails with the monthly reports that the Comptroller and I previously announced would be posted online.

LBB documents online: The LBB, which is in charge of putting the budget together and doing analysis for lawmakers, is now specifically charged to post to its website documents prepared in connection with an appropriations bill and provided to a legislative committee.  This is in line with part of a bill I sponsored and passed through the Senate, but that died in the last days of the session.

Interim budget hearings: The LBB will now be required to hold a public hearing before any budget reduction request during the interim could take effect.  These requests are typically made by those in control of the Capitol and done with little outside input or even justification.  As you may remember from last summer, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House ordered that agencies cut their budgets, but there was scarce public input regarding how much needed to be cut and what the impact of those cuts would be.  This provision, which is similar to Senate Bill 704, will make sure the public can weigh in on those decisions.

Fees schedule: Under this provision, the Comptroller will have to publish a fees schedule once a year providing basic information about the fees the state assesses and money those fees raise.  This information will need to include the amount of fee revenue being diverted away from its intended purpose and used to balance the budget.  This is very much in line with the announcement the Comptroller and I made last spring, and it’s similar to another of my Honesty Agenda bills – SB 699.

Cash Management Committee reforms: Every year, the state issues short-term debt to cover bills before additional revenue comes in.  The limits on that debt level are set by what’s called the Cash Management Committee, consisting of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House and Comptroller. Currently, those debt limits might be set more than a year before debt is issued.  But under this measure, the committee will have to convene at least once a year to ensure those debt limits are more in line with the state’s fiscal picture.  This one is similar to SB 706.

Those changes add to what I was already pretty proud of as a successful session when it comes to budget transparency.  I also:

  • Passed SB 701, which requires agencies to post data they’re already collecting to their web sites as long as they can do so without additional cost to the state.
  • Successfully pushed a rule change at the beginning of the legislative session requiring what’s known as the “Outside the Bounds” resolution – a summary document outlining new additions or subtractions to the final draft budget – to be available for at least 48 hours before legislators vote on the budget.
  • And, again, the Comptroller and I announced a number of reforms last spring to provide more regular updates about the state’s revenue picture, allow the public to get better information on fees, and require agencies to provide information about federal funds they use – as well as additional money that might be available to Texas (this is similar to my SB 703).

So, as a result of my Honesty Agenda, this wound up being a pretty successful session for budget honesty, openness and accountability to Texans.  However, there’s still tons – tons – of work required to get rid of the debt, diversions and deception that run through Texas’ budget and finances.

And you can bet I’m already thinking about next session’s agenda.

Outside in the distance. . .

As we look toward the next session, it was announced last week that I’ll be Chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, replacing Senator Leticia Van de Putte, who’s served admirably in that role for most of a decade.  The job started with the announcement.  You can read some of the media coverage here and here.

I’m honored and excited to work in this new job toward the priorities that I’ve always had and that most Texans share – quality public education, affordable and accessible health care, and an open and honest Texas budget.