Texans know what it means to hold off on paying a bill for a month or two, but eventually we all have to settle up in order to keep the lights on and ensure there’s a car in the driveway and a roof over our heads. The Legislature, however, consistently refuses to pay our state’s bills and everyday Texans shoulder the burden. The budget drafts released by House and Senate leadership make some investments in our future, but they fail to meet the state’s long-standing debts for child welfare, public education, and health care. All the while, wealthy corporations like Samsung and Tesla get sweetheart deals that allow them to skip out on paying their fair share of the services all Texans — from Texarkana to Del Rio and from Ector to Orange — rely on. Before enriching high-end homeowners and profitable corporations with another round of tax cuts, the Legislature must first pay its overdue bills.
For better or worse, recent inflation coupled with a lack of investment in critical public services has created giant balances in the state’s bank accounts. Now, the 88th Texas Legislature has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stop playing shell games with the hard-earned tax dollars of Texans and our families and start investing in the Texas we have long deserved. This session, lawmakers and budget writers should strategically use historic balances to support long-neglected state programs and services and make equally historic investments in the future of all Texans. Education and health care are routinely underfunded public services that could hugely benefit from a momentous investment to catch up on old debts and plan for our future, just as any Texan would do in their personal lives after a good year.
Texas has never fully met the needs of its students. While court rulings may allow the state to fund schools at a barely adequate level, the Legislature can use its budget balance to more equitably fund a “general diffusion of knowledge and skills,” as our state Constitution guarantees. Texas has underfunded education to the point that our teachers have lost nearly a decade in economic growth because the state underpays them, and nearly 98% of all educators pay out-of-pocket for classroom materials or students’ daily essentials. Currently, the state’s base level of funding is $6,160 per student to attend a public or charter school in Texas. At minimum, the Legislature should raise the basic allotment to $7,075 per student just to match the historic inflation families, teachers, and districts have faced in the last two years. Increasing this basic building block of school finance would allow districts to meet current student needs and provide an across-the-board pay raise for teachers. Instead of increasing the basic allotment, the House and Senate base budgets include $15 billion in tax cuts, showing once again that the Legislature values tax cuts over our schools.
But that only gets us to today’s baseline cost of educating Texas children. According to the most recent KIDS COUNT® Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Texas ranks 33rd in the nation for children’s education, in part because 70% of 4th graders are not proficient in reading and an equal amount of 8th graders have trouble with math. When budget writers sit down to revise their first budget draft, we urge them to use Texas’ once-in-a-lifetime windfall balance to invest in our kids and our future by prioritizing funding for our public schools.
The current budget opportunity offers more than a restorative influx of funding to the public education system. Now is the time to fund our state’s community colleges, provide funding for schools left out of the Permanent University Fund, and address growing student debt. Funding the recommendations of the Texas Commission on Community College Finance is an excellent start, but the economic needs of students and their families require solutions and support beyond tuition scholarships and grants. Housing, childcare, and health care are issues that prevent students from completing their degrees or training programs, but they are also circumstances that affect the ability of many Texans to maintain steady work and provide for our families. We can make transformational change in public and higher education by putting our money on the sure bet of Texas students rather than letting wealthy corporations import their highly-paid staff. As much as we need an educated workforce, Texas needs a healthy workforce, and with our current ability to pay past bills, it’s past time to care for our neighbors and families who need access to medical services.
Health and Food Justice
Texans face long-standing challenges to achieving optimal health outcomes, including our state’s worst-in-the-nation uninsured rate. Poor health outcomes and limited access to care in our state is a choice Texas budget writers have excused for far too long because of a so-called lack of resources. Now is the time to give rural communities their hospitals back, ensure Black mothers can have a healthy pregnancy, and provide every Texan with food security and access to health care. If Texans deserve a return on our sales tax investment, like with education, a high-quality public health system that serves people before they seek an emergency room is one of the best dividends we can get — and one we should expect.
Our government is more than the people who press a green or red light inside the Texas Capitol. State government, from bottom to top, is full of Texans working hard to provide for their families. Texans, regardless of where we live or what we look like, use our state parks, highways, and museums, in addition to the critical life-saving services that deliver health care access and food security to families. But the Legislature intentionally underfunds public services and the state’s workforce to cater to their wealthy friends who do not like paying their fair share of taxes. As a result, the state government faces historically high staff turnover, which limits our access to public goods and services in many ways. High state employee turnover costs money, but it also costs everyday Texans living and working in our state. Every Texan conservatively estimates that, at 22.7%, state workforce attrition costs us more than $1.2 billion annually, the highest it’s been in the last 30 years. Some state agencies are facing turnover rates as high as 45%. Despite a steady increase in the population of Texas over the last 30 years, the number of state workers providing vital public services has remained the same or even decreased at some agencies. State Auditor’s Office reports show the main reasons state employees are leaving their jobs are low pay, uncompetitive benefits, and poor working conditions. Session after session, retired state employees ask for their pension fund to be made sound and for a cost-of-living increase for future benefits. And, session after session, our state’s retired workers are told the state cannot afford to maintain its commitment to their well-being. This legislative session, the state can afford to pay employees competitive wages and help retired employees adjust to skyrocketing costs of living.
Texans Are Worth the Investment
Across Texas, students are walking into old buildings with underfunded classrooms, their parents are struggling to provide the health care needed to keep their families out of emergency rooms, and the state employees doing the hard work of making education and health care systems function are doing 2023 labor on 2003 wages. The House and Senate Budgets released this week give a wink and a nod to working Texans while simultaneously pushing them to the back of the line, in favor of giveaways to wealthy property owners and corporations. In their inaugural speeches, the lieutenant governor and governor both heralded the strength of the Texas economy by describing how well their lack of investment in Texans attracted wealthy corporations to the state. The 88th Legislature has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do right by Texans and make transformative change with the next budget draft. Every small town, big city, and suburb in between is worth the government we have long deserved, and the state bank account finally has the money to make it happen.