Estimates of the state budget shortfall for the 2004-2005 biennium -- to fund existing programs -- are ranging from $5 billion (the quasi-official figure) to $12 billion (the glum speculation of GOP budget maven Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington). Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander will release her official revenue estimate Jan. 15. In a state budget of $114 billion, $5 billion might not sound like much. It didn't sound like much to many candidates this election season, as they told voters that "scrubbing" the budget would easily make this deficit go away. But over 80% of the state budget is dedicated funding (more than half, for example, to education) that the Lege can't touch. So the scrubbers have maybe $20 billion in discretionary funding to squeegee for spare change.
You don't need a tax-and-spend liberal to tell you that $5-to-12-billion out of $20 billion is a lot of money. Both Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant -- the interim lieutenant governor -- and retiring school finance committee chair Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, snorted at the bipartisan campaign rhetoric that the budget could be balanced with sofa-cushion change and (the mantra of would-be freshmen reps) "across-the-board cuts." Perry recently asked all state agencies to determine the effect on their operations of a 3-to-5% across-the-board funding cut. Last week the Associated Press reported a few responses:
That's all before we get to programs like Medicaid or children's health insurance, which are already underfunded -- they're very popular targets on the GOP right, but cutting them actually costs the state money, because the federal matching funds go elsewhere.
On another fiduciary front, the only consensus on public school finance is no consensus -- the interim joint committee could not even agree on a set of recommendations. There is no reason to believe that the Lege's committee of the whole will be any more successful. But the cost of public schools doesn't go away; it's just pushed downward -- radically unevenly -- onto local property districts. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, has filed HB 232, which would abolish the current recapture system (aka "Robin Hood") -- but proposes nothing in its place. A safe bet is no progress on public school finance for at least another session.
Because of this budgetary predicament, one cheerful speculation making the rounds is "multiple" special sessions -- that is, the governor will have to re-convene the festivities until the books balance.