The Four Horsemen of the Deficit

Examining the new House committees on state spending

There's nothing like necessity to add focus and so, with the state's structural deficit being amplified by collapsing tax revenues, yesterday House Speaker Joe Straus announced four new select committees that will tackle the operations, demands, and tax base of the state of Texas.

Straus announced the committees, their mandates and their memberships by proclamation yesterday. Headline news: A simple glance show that the Republicans get two chairmanships (both of the largest committees) and, as the majority party, hold the majorities in three of the new bodies. However, that said, the membership is pretty equitably split along party lines.

Howard: Federal Legislation committee "making sure we don't get caught off-guard." (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Federal Legislation: Chair John Zerwas, R-Richmond, vice-chair Garnet Coleman, D-Houston (15 members, 7 D, 8 R.) Health care reform is coming, and states will have to prepare for its arrival. However, there may be a little bit of pre-judging going on here, since the charge includes monitoring for violations of the 1995 Unfunded Mandates Reform Act. Beyond health care, the committee will "also work to improve the exchange of information between Texas and Washington, D.C., by communicating the impact of pending federal legislation to the state economy and citizens." Austin's own Democratic Reps. Donna Howard and Elliott Naishtat were both selected for this body, and Howard said that she expected it "will be similar to (Waco Democrat) Jim Dunnam's special committee monitoring federal stimulus funds. They had hearings on that, and then provided the rest of the legislators with regular updates on what was going on." She foresaw the committee's role as "making sure we don't get caught off guard and we can prepare, so whatever happens it can be implemented in Texas in a way that's beneficial to the state."

Naishtat backed that idea, and added that this committee will allow legislators "to focus attention and hopefully solicit input from the public regarding one of the most important federal initiatives we will be facing next session." However, he was concerned that the proclamation and accompanying press release dealt so heavily with terms like "fiscal responsibility" and "unfunded mandates." Combine that with Gov. Rick Perry's anti-Washington posturing and Attorney General Greg Abbott already threatening to challenge whatever health care bill emerges, and it seems like the fix is in. However, Naishtat called the committee an opportunity to redefine the debate and said, "Because Texas historically is not the most generous of states when it comes to health and human services funding, I think it's important that this committee looks at the needs of Texas, especially in the health care arena."

Government Efficiency and Accountability: Chair Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, vice-chair John Davis, R-Houston (11 members, 5 D, 6 R.) The cost-cutter that "shall study and make recommendations for eliminating inefficiencies and improving accountability in state government." Committee member Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, said, "It's leveled with people who have an interest in contracting, specifically women and minority-owned business contracting, and privatization." Gallego has been a big advocate for codifying the role of historically under-utilized businesses (HUB), but Republican members Burt Solomons, Kelly Hancock and Rob Orr have all tried to privatize state operations "in the name of efficiency," Dukes noted. While HUB firms might look to Gallego for some support, she warned that the bundling inherent in big state contracts "highly limits the opportunities for small businesses that are the backbone of the majority of businesses in the state."

Fiscal Stability: Chair John Otto, R-Dayton, vice-chair Sylvester Turner, D-Houston (15 members, 7 D, 8 R.) The committee directly charged with looking at the state's inability to raise enough taxes to cover its requirements. Interestingly, the charge orders them to "determine whether the recent and anticipated shortfalls are simply the product of the ongoing recession or whether state resources cannot keep pace with increasing demands," and raises the possibility of "a more systemic problem" beyond the drop in sales taxes. House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, has been very open about the structural deficit, but Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, is the kind of corporate-friendly voice likely to block any meaningful reforms of the tax base.

Emergency Preparedness: Chair Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg, vice-chair Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton, R-Mauriceville (11 members, 6 D, 5 R.) Call it the post-Hurricane Ike, post-Fort Hood shootings committee, charged to "comprehensively study the State of Texas' preparedness level for major disasters, including those resulting for natural catastrophes and criminal activity." Interestingly, the only mention of terrorism is in the accompanying press release. This committee features another Travis County Democratic Rep, Technology, Economic Development & Workforce Committee chair Mark Strama.

There are still questions over when these new bodies will start meeting, how often they will be able to meet, and exactly what they will be able to look at. Dukes noted that her committee, which is supposed to evaluate contracts, is only examining those agencies not currently under Sunset Review. That means they won't be evaluating the Texas Department of Transportation, "which is one of the largest agencies with the largest amount of contracts." There is still a big question about whether the word "should" in the proclamation gives them the leeway to tread on Sunset's toes on this one issue, and whether the wording actually also covers everything in the four year Sunset period, which would place Health and Human Services out of reach as well.

Naishtat: "Do we continue to neglect these people because of questionable fiscal concerns?" (Photo by John Anderson)

Nasihtat warned, "Good things and bad things can come out of select committees." However, Democrats are already hoping they can use the committees to at least raise questions about the gaps in the budget, the tax base and service provisions. Dukes argued that, whatever the behind-the-scene purpose, these committees will put many legislators on the spot as they defend their record of malfunctioning tax cuts. Naishtat added, "I guarantee you, with Garnet Coleman and me on this committee, there will be an ongoing discussion about the issue of, do we pay now or do we pay later? Is it in the state's best fiscal interest to significantly reduce the number of uninsured Texans, including children, so that, from a strictly economic perspective, in the long run we're saving money, or do we continue to neglect these people because of questionable fiscal concerns?"

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

81st Legislature, Joe Straus, Speaker's Office, State Budget, Texas House of Representatives, Dawnna Dukes, Elliott Naishtat, Donna Howard, Structural Deficit

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