A year ago, as the tea party phenomenon was working up to a 2010 electoral landslide across the nation, one principle was foremost in the discussion: government is too big, at all levels, and it is costing us our future and our potential for prosperity.
Even as much attention was concentrated on federal races for the U.S. House and Senate, small-government activists kept focus on state-level and district-level races as well. This was especially evident in Texas, where the number of Republicans in the Texas House went from 77 to 101 in one cycle. Republicans in Texas took this as a mandate to lead; conservatives took this as a mandate to cut spending.
After a quarrelsome session in 2011, it was apparent that the legislature had difficulty understanding what a “cut” actually was. They did resist raiding most of the “Rainy Day Fund” for balancing the budget, spending only $3.1 billion to cover some current obligations. But though every interest group, from school districts to women’s groups to health care providers, groused about the funding levels, few solutions were offered that did not involve tax increases (which would be harmful in this recession) or raiding the aforementioned fund. Legislators like John Zerwas, ostensibly a conservative, even argued for raiding the entire fund before attempting to cut programs.
Before the session even began, groups of conservatives were attempting to help the legislature through the cutting process, providing suggestions and creating detailed reports where logical cuts could be made without too much disruption to the state. For instance, the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute put out this report which highlighted around $21 billion in potential cuts. Check to see how many of these were instituted in the 2011 Legislative Session.
After all the wailing and gnashing of teeth among the various advocacy groups, after all the uproar about slashed budgets, much of the supposed “cuts” amounted to mere accounting gimmicks (such as shifting payments to schools into the next budget cycle and deferring Medicaid payments) guaranteeing another epic battle in the 2013 session, if not before.
Speaker Joe Straus signaled the start of that battle with his comments recently, in addressing the need to address the funding structure for Texas government. In criticizing the hole left in the budget by the Texas Franchise Tax (which was implemented in 2006 to correct a property tax structure that was said to be a de facto statewide property tax), the Speaker stated that the 2013 session must address the built-in budget shortfall caused by the poor performance of the margins tax. Straus answered criticism about the recent session’s failure to take action on the structural problems, saying that the legislature already had many issues to handle.
At the same time, school districts around the state have joined lawsuits against the state of Texas over school financing, hoping to use the courts to fix the education funding system. It bears noticing that the aforementioned margins tax of 2006 proceeded directly from the last lawsuit school districts filed against the state over funding. And if the Speaker holds true to his word, the Rainy Day Fund “will not be the crutch it’s been to date” in balancing the budget, something many districts are asking the legislature to do.
So in spite of all the budget battling this year, chances are the state of Texas will be right back where we started in January, as the 2013 session opens, only with courts involved. Advocates of small, good government and fiscal responsibility ought to be laying the groundwork now for the next session, looking for logical places to cut and streamline Texas government. Getting back to the core functions of the state is a good step in the right direction.