Naked City

Deficit? What Deficit?

No matter how hot debates over social issues get on the House and Senate floor, it's when discussing the state budget that real blood is spilled at the Lege. And that battle has already begun, even though the session doesn't begin for two weeks. State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander signaled last week that she now expects to revise her earlier revenue estimate for the next biennium. The news is not expected to be good. Rylander told the Associated Press that her staff analysts now predict the state economy will be softer than she had expected, and therefore "the initial $5 billion shortfall I warned about two years ago could grow significantly larger." The 2003-04 biennial budget target was $114 billion; earlier in the year (that is, during the campaign) key legislators had warned that the deficit would likely be much higher than $5 billion, but Rylander stuck to her prediction. Rylander's official revenue projections, which establish balanced-budget limits, aren't due until Jan. 15.

The GOP leadership may have found a new way around the problem: creative accounting. Traditionally, the Legislative Budget Board drafts a budget reflecting funding for current programs in light of actual demand for those state services. If the available revenues then show a deficit, lawmakers have to consider how to cut programs or else raise additional revenue. Last week, Gov. Rick Perry's office announced that Perry, Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst, and presumptive Speaker Tom Craddick were considering a reversed procedure: using the available revenue projections as the base for drafting the governor's budget, which legislators would then use for their budgeting purposes. In effect, the budget cuts would be made before the legislative process even begins. That would make it easier to pretend that there aren't any cuts at all, and certainly no need for additional revenue (i.e., taxes) -- and it would also handily short-circuit the Legislature's constitutional responsibilities.

State Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mt. Pleasant, who will be replaced as lieutenant governor by Dewhurst when the session opens, says that he has had "some contacts from other offices" suggesting the reversal in budget procedure, but he remains skeptical. "The question arises, 'Who is it that's going to decide what to cut?' Some people are advocating that the LBB staff go in and create such a document," he told the Houston Chronicle. "I think the only practical way to do this is to create the same document we have in the past and let the committees decide what to cut."

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