What Perry and White Must Talk About

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The state budget isn’t the sexiest campaign issue. There’s probably no faster way for a candidate to bore an audience than to start tossing around terms like “budget deficit” and “revenue projection.” So it’s not surprising that Texas’ two major-party candidates for governor have largely ignored the budget.

But here’s the thing: In 2010, there’s no more important issue facing Texas. The state’s finances are a mess. When the Legislature convenes next year, lawmakers will have to contend with an unnervingly large budget gap. We won’t know exactly how big the deficit will be until early January, when the comptroller releases a—ahem—revenue projection. Some smart people, including the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, estimate the deficit at $18 billion to $21 billion. That equates to about a quarter of all state spending.

The state’s Republican leadership has made plain its desire to balance the budget largely through spending cuts. Severe budget cuts will imperil some Texans’ lives. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. As The Dallas Morning News reported recently, the state’s HIV Medication Program, which provides anti-retroviral drugs to 15,000 Texans with HIV or AIDS, is running out of money. Without more state funds, the program will end, and 15,000 lives could be at risk. Cuts to state programs that provide medications and treatment for the mentally ill (state officials have already recommended cuts that would deprive 13,000 adults and children of mental health care) and substance-abuse treatment for drug addicts will also endanger lives.

Despite the high stakes, neither Republican Gov. Rick Perry nor challenger Democrat Bill White has said how he will deal with the looming budget crisis. White has at least listed general spending priorities—education and public safety top the list—though he’s been disappointingly vague about how he would address the shortfall. Would he support expanding the sales tax to cover professional services such as law firms and architects—a change that could bring billions into state coffers? We may never know. Perry, meanwhile, is hoping the deficit won’t be as large as predicted. That’s foolhardy. We know of Perry’s aversion to raising taxes, but does that mean he intends to slice tens of billions from Texas’ already meager budget? The governor hasn’t said.

The voters have a right to hear from their candidates for governor before the election—not after—how they plan to deal with the most pressing issue facing Texas.