What keeps you up at night? Is it the risks of not having health insurance? The rising cost of college? Overcrowded classrooms at your child’s school?
Well, it’s budget season at the Texas Capitol, and how legislators decide to invest state money could profoundly affect these and other aspects of our lives.
What have we heard so far this budget season?
We have heard plenty of proposals from legislators to spend general revenue putting troops on the border, building roads and cutting franchise taxes for businesses. Remember that cutting taxes costs the state money — and usually it’s local taxpayers who end up picking up the tab for critical services.
We have also heard some excellent proposals for how to invest in Texas families, like expanding pre-K to a high-quality, full-day program for eligible children. Every dollar invested in pre-K saves Texas at least $3.50 down the line, a terrific return on investment. Making health insurance coverage more affordable for more Texans also makes financial sense, since the alternative is too often expensive, taxpayer-funded emergency room visits.
And recently we have heard a growing number of influential business associations call on state leaders to first “invest in congested roads, educational challenges, obsolete infrastructure, high debt and underfunded pensions” before considering tax cuts.
As House and Senate budget proposals get fine-tuned, legislators usually describe their proposals as meeting the needs of Texas, while pointing out that they continue Texas’ long tradition of being a low tax, low spending state. At the same time, the budget proposals identify billions of dollars’ worth of items that should be “given consideration at such time as additional resources become available.”
Legislators working toward a compromise on the state budget in the coming months should keep in mind that Texas already has resources beyond proposed spending levels. With an estimated $113 billion in general revenue for 2016-17 and over $11 billion expected in the state’s rainy day fund by the end of 2017, Texas is in a strong position to make investments where they count.
Legislators drafting the budget rarely mention that the proposals for 2016-17 wouldn’t even get state investments back to 2008-09 levels, once you take population and inflation into account. The simple truth is that the state budget has not been making the kinds of investments in elementary and secondary schools, higher education, health care, or services necessary to keep up with our state’s growing needs and prepare Texas for future prosperity.
It’s unacceptable that budget writers are talking about leaving so much general revenue on the table when Texas has so many unmet needs. Even worse are proposals to reduce the amount of general revenue available to future legislators through tax cuts or proposed constitutional dedications to highways.
A much more encouraging development is that both the House and Senate are now proposing to increase state aid to schools — the single largest investment of state general revenue — beyond what current law would require. Whether that’s enough to satisfy the courts deciding the Texas school finance lawsuit won’t be known until 2016. Meanwhile, the wisest choice for legislators is clear: don’t make tomorrow’s budget choices more difficult than they have to be through tax giveaways that dig the hole deeper. Investments in education, health care, roads and other infrastructure, and other public priorities will ensure that we all rest easier.
This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on April 1, 2015.