Budget: Artificial Limits

Despite economic boom, Lege looks to restrict spending

Budget: Artificial Limits

Every session, the two chambers of the Legislature draft their own state budgets, but the houses alternate which name goes on the final accounting. This time around, the blood and blame will be on the lower chamber, as the Legislature inches toward passing House Bill 1, the 2015-16 state spending bill.

Unfortunately, three key leaders in the budget process have departed. Senate Finance Committee Chair Tommy Williams, R-the Woodlands, has retired. So has Comptroller Susan Combs, replaced by Williams' former chambermate, Glenn Hegar. Meanwhile the House starts deliberations without five-time Appropriations Committee chair, respected Waxahachie Republican Jim Pitts. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said, "The loss of Jim Pitts and his institutional memory is going to make a big hole for us on the House side." Howard's fellow Travis County Democrat, House Appropriations Committee Member Dawnna Dukes, agrees that there is "a void of leadership." However, she also sees an opportunity for individual legislators to provide not just new solutions to old problems, but to start the discussion about emerging issues.

Inevitably in Texas, the fiscal conservatives control the debate. In December, the Legislative Budget Board adopted a forecast of 11.68% state economic growth – much lower than most estimates (in the mid-teens). Because the estimate sets a "cap" on much budgetary growth, it severely limits lawmakers' abilities to fill spending gaps. Simultaneously, there is growing concern about the current low price of gas – great for consumers, but terrible for state coffers so dependent on hydrocarbon taxes. And there remain bills to be paid and deferred maintenance to cover. With no obvious national ambitions (unlike his predecessor), Governor-elect Greg Abbott is already talking about increased infrastructure investment, including $4 billion for roads. Then there's a battle brewing between fiscal conservatives in D.C. and fiscal conservatives in Texas over the Children's Health Insurance Program. Federal matching funds, worth $7 for every $3 Texas spends, run out in September, and if congressional Republicans don't add more cash, it could blow a huge hole in the state budget. (Medicaid expansion, although it would bring Texas federal billions and insure millions of Texans, is off the table because it's linked to "Obamacare.")

And in the background looms the biggest budgetary roadblock, the ongoing legal challenge to the school finance system, now headed to the state Supreme Court. Dukes argued there was political and popular consensus for school finance reform before that final ruling. However, she wondered, "Will that be acceptable to the governor, who has line item veto?"

Until that question is resolved, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, remains unsure whether a full budget will be passed in the regular session. He predicts the traditional "bumper-sticker talk" about tax cuts, especially from the massive class of freshmen. His hope is that, as they move beyond conservative rhetoric to real budget problems, they'll focus on unnecessary diversions and loopholes. He said, "When I first started talking about budget transparency, I was the lone voice in the wilderness. But now everyone wants to be talking about it.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More 84th Legislature 2015
Legislative Committees Take Shape
Legislative Committees Take Shape
Lite Guv Patrick begins making appointments

Richard Whittaker, Jan. 30, 2015

Gun Bullies Lead ... Lawmakers Follow
Gun Bullies Lead ... Lawmakers Follow
Gun activists mob Capitol to mixed reception

Chase Hoffberger, Jan. 23, 2015

More state budget
Summer Under the Dome
Summer Under the Dome
The first special winds down

Richard Whittaker, July 1, 2011

Less Is Still Less
Less Is Still Less
A session budgetary snapshot reflects some progress, dim prospects

Michael King, March 4, 2011

More by Richard Whittaker
<i>In Reality</i>, Filmmaker Ann Lupo Knows Who She Is
In Reality, Filmmaker Ann Lupo Knows Who She Is
Movie helps turn heartbreak into self-distributed success

April 22, 2019

Her Smell
Elisabeth Moss is a the center of a rock and roll tornado in this heartbreaking ballad of self-destruction

April 19, 2019

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

84th Legislature 2015, state budget, Legislative Budget Board

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle