In the last days of the 85th Texas Legislative Session, the House and Senate were tasked with coming to an agreement on two “must pass” pieces of legislation: sunset bills reauthorizing the existence of state agencies, and the state budget for the 2018-2019 biennium. How these two issues were handled demonstrates the best, and the worst, traits of the Legislature.
Over the next two articles, I want to take a look at The Good (the budget agreement), The Bad (how Sunset bills became bargaining chips), and The Ugly (how close we are coming to Washington-style politics in Texas). Let’s start on an up note with The Good.
As I said in previous articles, I was none too thrilled with either of the budgets passed by the House and Senate separately. Neither version used budget cuts to address the lower than hoped for revenue estimate; instead, they both chose less conservative methods of handling the shortfall.
The House version took money from the Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the “Rainy Day Fund” to cover ongoing expenses, a dangerous precedent that could lead to irresponsible use of the state’s savings account in the future if allowed to continue.
The Senate, on the other hand, tried to bypass constitutionally mandated investments in transportation infrastructure. This maneuver would have reset the payments so they would all be pushed back a few years, effectively deferring this year’s payment until the end of the payment schedule in 16 years.
I made clear that I did not like either of these options. Even though I voted with the use of ESF funds, as it was the more transparent of the two options, neither of the budgets were worth the paper they were written on. Once the House and Senate came together to negotiate, however, significant improvements were made all around.
Instead of using the Economic Stabilization Fund for continuing expenses, the Senate insisted that ESF funds only go towards one-time expenses, like repairing state buildings, or building hospitals. Instead of deferring the first investment in transportation by 16 years, the House insisted that it only be deferred two years, and be made in the supplemental budget next biennium, in order to give the primary budget a little breathing room.
This compromise demonstrates just what can happen when legislators come together under the common motivation of getting things done for the people they serve. The worst parts of each plan were eliminated, the sensible parts were kept, and the budget was still able to come in right at the conservative self-imposed spending increase limit, which, when obeyed, doesn’t allow the budget to increase by more than the level of population growth and the level of inflation.
When you combine the $216.75 Billion base budget with the $1.8 Billion planned supplemental, it still comes in under the $218.5 Billion spending limit, especially after Governor Abbott exercises his right to veto any spending line item he chooses.
This will be the second budget in a row to hold to this standard, one that makes sure that the footprint of government does not increase as a percentage of our economy. A growing state, like a growing family, will always see an increase in spending, and it will see more in revenue.
There are simply more people producing and consuming in Texas, so the economy and the budget grow accordingly. The problem comes when government spending expands faster than the economy, encroaching on the private sector, rather than simply adjusting to provide the same services to a larger group of people.
Keeping government from growing wasn’t the only promising outcome of the budget agreement; the House and Senate were also able to find a way to properly fund the vital functions of our state government in ways that will help solve long-standing issues that matter to Texans across the state. Here are just a few:
• $80m in funds to the Dept of Family and Protective Services to hire 598 new case workers, decreasing the caseload of our state social workers to 17:1, a workload that fits within reasonable levels, and fits the mandate set by the courts.
• $40.9m to help foster families provide for the children in their care
• $12.3m to fund alternatives to abortion, and authorizing the Health and Human Services Commission to spend up to $38.3m more if they see the need
• $0 in tax money for Planned Parenthood
• $30.4m increase for women’s health care, along with a matching federal contribution.
And 314 new employees for TxDoT, to help rebuild and maintain our vital infrastructure.
When the House and Senate chose to actually work together for the good of Texans, we produced a budget that not only brought together the fractured Republican Caucus to vote unanimously for it, but brought a majority of the Democrats along as well. We found solutions to our problems, and set aside our differences to find a way to ensure that Texas didn’t face a state government shutdown.
However, the spirit of compromise and statesmanship did not extend to all issues this session. Next time, let’s look at the darker side of the session, and how a lack of that spirit brought a great deal of good, needed, legislation to a halt.