The Texas economy is taking hits from efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19, and it is becoming apparent lawmakers are going to have to tighten some belts, as they prepare to work on the state’s next biennial budget.
As a bartender in a previous life, I would periodically do a deep clean on the bar I tended, taking everything out and removing all the junk. And like a deep clean behind the bar, in 2021, the Legislature will need to take a hard look at agency budgets and remove as much junk as possible.
To that end, Senate Bill 68, passed in the last session and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 7, 2019, will be a great aid.
Under SB 68, every time an agency is up for Sunset review, it will undergo a strategic fiscal review by the Legislative Budget Board, which will provide a report to the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker, and Senate Finance and House Appropriations committee chairs. The goal of the review will be to improve state agency operations and help limit growth in state spending.
The goal here is to strengthen the Sunset process. In 1977, the Legislature created the Sunset Advisory Commission in response to calls for more legislative oversight and reform. At select intervals (usually every 12 years), state agencies are reviewed by the Commission, which evaluates the agency’s duties—and determines if the agency should continue to exist, or should be abolished. Since its inception more than 40 years ago, the Commission has abolished 85 state agencies. And it has saved Texas taxpayers nearly $1 billion.
SB 68 builds on that success. By adding a detailed financial aspect in tandem with the periodic review of these agencies, the quality of oversight will be vastly improved. Though the LBB’s directive in SB 68 is technically separate from the Sunset Commission’s review, both will occur simultaneously—ensuring a thorough examination of state agencies.
Each agency undergoing a Sunset review will receive a bottom-up review from the LBB, detailing exactly where the money is going, whether that money is being spent effectively, and what it would take to operate at the save level.
The LBB will also explore what would happen if the agency were to cut a program. It will rank programs from most to least important, and it will make a recommendation to the Legislature about whether the agency should continue to be funded—and at what level.
This will give lawmakers on the appropriations committee a more detailed understanding of the effect budget cuts would have on agencies and their operations. That will give lawmakers more confidence in limiting the growth of spending or even cutting spending.
So why not do this every biennium—for every agency?
This review concept has a lot of promise when it comes to controlling growth and cutting waste. But by introducing this process incrementally, the Legislature will be able to gauge SB 68’s effectiveness and adjust where needed.
Every year the population of Texas gets bigger, and taxpayers need to be wary of the notion that state spending must grow accordingly. In limiting the growth of spending we can be more protected against economic recessions, or events like a pandemic that cause a sustained downturn in the economy. SB 68 will help ensure that the Legislature is spending tax dollars effectively and responsibly.