HOT TAKE: The Texas State Budget

The 86th Texas legislative session is complete and the dust has settled enough that we can scrutinize what exactly the folks in the pink dome have given us. That means it’s time for my first “Hot Take” newsletter! In these, I’ll give you my thoughts on issues facing Texas from the perspective of a citizen, political activist, and former conservative legislator. What I write here is not the editorial position of The Texan — we don’t tell our readers what to think — but it will hopefully provide insight into how someone who has seen how the sausage is made in our government views our political process.

And there is no sausage more unhygienically made in our Texas government than the biennial budget every legislature is constitutionally required to pass, in fact, the only bill they’re required to pass. I was part of two budget cycles during my time as a State Senator, in 2015 and 2017. Both times, my fellow Republican Freshmen and I fought hard to make sure those budgets did not grow session to session more than the previous cycle’s allotment plus population and inflation — the gold standard for a conservative budget. I am proud to say that goal was achieved both sessions.

Being a prudent steward of the taxpayer’s dollars should always be the highest priority of our elected officials.

The population plus inflation metric is not absolutely perfect but it’s simple and it works, and as a result of the constraints it places on legislators it forces them to make tough choices, be protective of the state’s growth, rely on the charity of our fellow Texans, and get creative about policy solutions. The laziest, and easiest answer in government is that a problem can be solved by throwing more money at it, and yet it almost never does.

Which is why it was so surprising to see that after two straight sessions of fiscally responsible budgets for the taxpayers of Texas, the 86th legislature — and its still robust Republican majority, would draw such a stark contrast and blow past the population plus inflation standard. The legislature could have spent up to $234.1 billion this session and still stayed within this standard, instead Republicans and Democrats, together, spent more than 9 billion more than that.

Yes, Texas experienced a natural disaster previous to the 86th legislative session and yes, Texans were clamoring for property tax relief that would require some supplementation of lost local tax revenue by the state. However, that staggering $243.7 billion that was spent doesn’t even include the additional dollars the state spent for Hurricane Harvey relief and property tax relief.

The bill which provided the bulk of the spending increases, HB 3, increases the state’s contribution to every student’s education funding by a staggering 20%, over a $1,000 increase per student. When one looks at how that extra money was spent, there are some responsible investments like teacher salary increases and then there are imprudent expenditures like full day Pre-K that expands the scope of a public education system that already takes up over half the state’s total budget. I may write a future Hot Take on how the new public education money was spent but that is not my focus here. Today my issue is that no matter how important that the legislature thinks the purpose for the new spending is, it still has the responsibility to make the tough choices that keep spending at sustainable levels.

Unfortunately, the final result of this budget is that Republicans and Democrats together, spent almost every last new dollar of revenue we had this session, drained the Rainy-Day Fund by almost half, and signed ourselves up for commitments that we have almost no ability to predict the magnitude of — and yet the overwhelming majority of elected officials came away calling the 86th Legislature a “super-bowl session.”

From the perspective of a taxpayer and former elected official whose focus was funding core functions of government while passing a fiscally responsible budget, this session didn’t strike me as a showcase of the best Texas government has to offer, but rather the kind of abdication of taxpayer priorities we’ve come to expect from Washington D.C.

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