When Texas legislators concluded their constitutionally mandated 140-day session, they left Austin with a $139.4 billion biennial budget for the taxpayers to cover. That represents a 19 percent increase over the budget they passed just two years ago.
Did your disposable income rise 19 percent over the last two years? Not likely.
What are they spending money on? Lots of really good causes. Indeed, one can make a strong, convincing, even moral, argument for every single line of this new state budget. Indeed, one can make a strong case that each line should actually be higher.
And that is precisely the problem.
Two years ago lawmakers faced the proverbial noose-around-the-neck. They had a $10 billion budget shortfall that had to be plugged, so they took on the difficult task of establishing spending priorities. Spending was actually reduced, in real dollars, because they had to fill the gap. Our national economy affected the state’s treasury which forced sound fiscal discipline.
Texans overwhelmingly approved of the decision to use fiscal restraint; over 60 percent in various opinion polls said lawmakers did the right thing by cutting spending.
That was then, this is now. The policy decisions that set fiscal priorities two years ago were in many cases abandoned at the sight of new cash flowing into the state coffers.
Much has been made of a lack of a school finance plan. In fact, the approved budget spends $2.2 billion more on public education than in the past. We’re spending more on public education than ever before in Texas. But with no new accountability. No new reforms. Just more spending.
This new budget spends a total of $34 billion on public education in a state with 22.5 million residents. Another $20 billion goes to colleges and universities. Medicaid, CHIP and other health and human services get $50 billion. Those three areas alone account for more than two-thirds of the state’s budget.
Every spending line-item is a top priority for lawmakers. Every single spending item has a clamoring constituency that threatens political pain, or conversely offers electoral bliss. And so they get funded as long as times are good.
In a perverse way, our rejuvenated and thriving Texas economy is partially to blame for the Austin spending spree. It might make one sarcastically hope for more down times.
But there is a better way; a better way to compel the fiscal discipline that our elected leadership embraced when times were bad – even when the economy is good. That way is a taxpayer bill of rights – a TABOR.
A TABOR very simply forces government to live within its means. Politicians are allowed to spend only as much more as allowed for inflation plus population growth. That’s a reasonable measure – it accounts for people moving in and prices going up. If they want to spend more, the lawmakers simply need to ask for permission from the people.
By forcing the legislature, and indeed the public, to prioritize spending, a TABOR compels rational policy decisions based on measurable outcomes and not fairy tales. It forces the funding of true public priorities at the top of the line, ensures necessary services are provided, and everything else must wait its appropriate turn.
The beauty of a TABOR is found not only in the restraint on spending it creates, but on revenues. Under a TABOR, revenues – taxes – cannot increase beyond inflation plus population growth. Legislators can neither bring in nor expend more money without first making the case to the taxpayers.
When the legislature next convenes, amending the state’s constitution to include a strong TABOR should be the top priority.
The time has come to end the state’s spending disorder before it gets worse. The single best cure is a strong TABOR. Without it, Texans had better grow accustomed to an increasing level of fiscal heartburn.
Michael Quinn Sullivan is the vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit research institute based in Austin (www.TexasPolicy.com).