Texans overwhelmingly oppose tax increases, that much is clear. Poll after poll – including the most important one on Election Day ’02 – demonstrate that we as a people generally understand the economic importance of setting taxes low.
But to keep more of our own money, each of us has the responsibility to stop asking our legislators to spend it. We already have one of the most fiscally efficient state governments in the nation. But the $9.9 billion expected budget shortfall tells us we still have work to do.
When the governor recently addressed the state, he clearly and eloquently drew a line in the sand on tax increases. The people of our state “don’t want, don’t need and don’t deserve new taxes,” he said.
Gov. Perry also made it abundantly clear that the state’s government must economize, and even downsize, in tough times: “Texans elected us to set priorities, not to raise the price of government.”
As citizens, though, we must recognize that Texas’ fundamental budget problem is not with legislators, but ourselves. The state’s budget exceeds $100 billion. Contrary to popular belief, that cost is not driven by a handful of pet projects promoted by a few entrenched special-interests getting legislation passed in the dead of night.
There is no budgetary boogie-man; the problem isn’t them, it’s us. It’s the letters, phone calls and gas-station chats with constituents that set spending priorities for legislators, not dinners in Austin with corporate lobbyists.
Every project, every line-item, does have value. A few tax dollars for economic development? Of course. A little more to promote fine arts? Why not? Maybe expanded health care coverage for all teachers? Repaving a road here… New computers for a school there… A few more employees in that agency… A couple more vehicles for this one… Regardless of one’s perspective, every line of spending in the state’s budget – from economically justified and morally important, to politically frivolous and hopelessly wasteful – shares one important characteristic with every other: it adds up to a bill that must be presented to the taxpayer.
Fundamentally, the tax issue is not about taxes, it’s about spending, so we can’t have it both ways. We cannot one moment ask government to pay for our projects, and the next tell legislators to cut our taxes.
Certainly there are inefficiencies. And, yes, state agencies and programs can suffer from the inevitable onset of bureaucratic mission creep. The inefficiencies must be rooted out, and programs abolished when no longer useful. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has identified a great number of cost-saving opportunities, while the governor has produced a substantive vision for bringing state spending in line with current revenue.
You and I as citizens and taxpayers cannot be content to grouse, complain, and then simply wait for legislators to do the right thing. We should certainly demand a reduction in spending as we converse with legislators, but more importantly we should demonstrate it in our attitudes and expectations toward state government in the daily affairs of civic life.
The Texas Legislature should move to strengthen and expand our constitution’s existing spending limitations, while implementing a super-majority vote-requirement before raising taxes. We should implement sliding-scale fees for welfare services, requiring those who can pay to pay what they can. Where programs and procedures can be privatized, do so immediately. If the private sector is providing a service, state government should not. The bureaucracy must be held accountable for the first dollar spent. Ultimately, state spending must be tied to economic analysis, not wishful thinking.
It’s been said nothing sharpens the focus of the mind like a noose around one’s neck. If that is the case, the much ballyhooed multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall is a great opportunity for Texans to examine our priorities and demand greater fiscal constraint.
While taxes are the issue, spending is the problem. And only you and I can fix it.
Michael Quinn Sullivan is director of media and government relations in Austin for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit think tank.