Note: This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on April 18, 2012.
The legendary comedian Will Rogers once said, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”
Reports of bureaucrats gone wild are everywhere these days, with the most high-profile incident right now, of course, involving the General Services Administration and its penchant for taxpayer-funded clowns, comedians and mind-readers. But profligate government spending isn’t just a problem in Washington, D.C. There’s plenty of questionable spending right here in Texas.
Take the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Egg Quality Program, for example, which sends egg inspectors to retail stores “to ensure that the eggs sold to Texas consumers meet TDA’s quality standards.” In layman terms, that means that Texas taxpayers are funding a program that sends government workers to grocery stores and other retail outlets to make sure that shoppers aren’t buying cracked eggs, presumably because the government doesn’t trust us to do this for ourselves. The cost of the egg inspection program: nearly $750,000 in today’s budget.
Another example: the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists, an obscure agency whose mission it is “to protect public health, safety, welfare and the state’s natural resources by ensuring only qualified persons carry out the public practice of geoscience and enforcing the professional code of conduct.” Hard to believe, but Texas taxpayers will shell out almost $1 million this biennium to protect themselves from roving bands of lawless professional geoscientists.
Other examples abound, at both the state and local level, and all of these might be laughable if so much of our money and livelihood weren’t at stake.
The next legislative session is likely to showcase major budget battles over both a $3 billion to $4.5 billion expected deficit and a $10 billion to $13 billion projected shortfall. The battle will pit those who think government should live within its means against those who want to maintain the status quo by whatever means necessary, including raising taxes and fees – and the winner of that debate will lay the groundwork for the future of Texas for years to come.
If legislators restrain spending and balance the budget within available revenue, ideally by eliminating nonessential programs and agencies like those mentioned above and getting back to the constitutional vision of limited government, then it stands to reason that Texas’ private sector will continue its rebound, ensuring that it remains America’s economic engine.
If, however, legislators bend to the special interests and lobbyists looking to preserve their pieces of the taxpayer pie, then the ensuing tax and fee increases facing Texans could well stymie our economic rebound and act as a deterrent to future business investments and relocations.
Fortunately, Texans for a Conservative Budget, a coalition of grass-roots and policy organizations that includes the Texas Public Policy Foundation, are helping to point lawmakers in the right direction with a series of recommendations for how to balance the next state budget. What’s more, Gov. Rick Perry just announced his budget principles for the 2013 session in the form of the Texas Budget Compact.
These documents, developed independently, have much in common. Spend only what the state is going to collect in revenue during the two years of the budget – no accounting gimmicks. Preserve the rainy day fund for one-time needs. Hold the line on taxes so that businesses and families can keep more of what they earn. And tighten the Texas Constitution’s spending limit so that it can more effectively rein in two decades of state overspending.
By instituting serious budget-cutting reforms like those proposed by Texans for a Conservative Budget and following the lead of the governor, lawmakers will put Texas in a truly great position to compete among the states.
But if lawmakers choose to go the other direction and preserve the waste, fraud and abuse that exists in today’s Texas budget while raising taxes and fees to close the gaps, then we shouldn’t be surprised when we become the next big satirical target.