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Newspaper Math: Bad Assumptions, Bad Pronouncements

Be Wary Of Journalists Talking About State Revenues, Budgets

Advertisers and insiders have reeled the last several months as newspapers around the state and nation were found to use shoddy math to prop up their circulation numbers to increase their profits.

It seems shoddy accounting methods are not limited to the circulation departments of Texas’ major metros.

The San Antonio Express-News opined that Governor Rick Perry’s claims of a $6.4 billion increase in budget revenues was like calling “a pig a princess” and that the people “must not be fooled.”

Let’s look at the numbers. This year the Comptroller is projecting $64.7 billion in discretionary fund revenues. Two years ago lawmakers appropriated $58.3. That’s a difference of $6.4 billion. Even a journalist should be able to do that math.

So what Texans “must not” do is put too much stock in the pronouncements of newspaper editorial boards. The Express-News claims there isn’t $6 billion more in revenues because that money has already been spent.

Sorry, but it just ain’t so. Like the special-interest-protecting bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., the state’s media and liberal elite – if I may repeat myself – make the faulty assumption that current spending should be automatically increased. The argument goes that we must “maintain” the current level of service for any particular program, which means increasing the money spent.

That’s not bad math; that’s bad public policy.

There is not a single agency, program or activity in the Texas Constitution that is guaranteed a single additional cent from the taxpayer’s purse; spending growth is not required by the state’s constitution. More importantly, there is not a shred of moral justification for simply increasing the funds expended for any program without a careful consideration of how the money was previously spent.

Maybe legislators will determine in the course of the appropriations process that the state needs to spend $6 billion more than it did in the last Session, leaving Texas’ coffers with a few hundred million in the bank. But that is a very different outcome than simply presuming more money needs to be spent because of the way it was spent in the past.

For months newspaper columnists have told Texans how bad things are; how the fiscal disciplines imposed last Session would wreak havoc on our state. As recently as this weekend, editorial boards and left-wing advocates were calling for tax increases to meet the presumed “budget shortfall.” Now that they have been proven wrong, these guys are whining that the surplus isn’t what it could have been.

But maybe they are right. With a little more discipline, and an even finer knife to the budget this Session, taxpayers could be saved a lot more money.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, a former newspaper reporter, is vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based research institute.