End of Fiscal Innocence

The Governor and Legislative leadership must be longing for the heady days of December and January, back when they basked in their election blowout and could still fantasize the budget gap was a mere $5 billion. Even the comptroller’s revised deficit estimate of $10 billion didn’t seem to dampen the festive mood. The party line was still, “We can balance the budget without raising taxes.” Just stop the spending spree, right?

Well, they tried. The governor and Republican leadership told agencies to offer budget reductions of 12.5 percent. The result, presented to the legislature the past four weeks, has been untenable proposals that would end Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program as we know them, and gut the criminal justice system and an already enfeebled mental health network. In Medicaid and CHIP alone, nearly 700,000 people would lose services by 2005, including health coverage for the blind, elderly and disabled, and for breast and cervical cancer patients. Worse yet, a proposed 33 percent cut in provider rates could cause many rural doctors to head for urban areas, effectively eroding the Medicaid system. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that a state, already dead last nationally in entitlement spending, couldn’t afford 12.5 percent cuts in services, especially considering spiraling population and health care costs. But until recently, some members of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees fully believed Texas ran a wasteful government that needed “belt tightening.”

Why did they buy the hype? Partly because they wouldn’t have known the budget if it fell on them. More than 75 percent of the House Appropriations Committee members (21 of 29) weren’t on the panel last session and only nine ever served on any appropriations committee. Exiled were budget veterans Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) and Scott Hochberg (D-Houston). Just six of the 15 Senate Finance members served on that committee last session (not including first-term Sen. Kyle Janek who was on House Appropriations in 2001). That leaves many members struggling to figure out what the majority of state agencies do, precisely at the same moment they grapple with the biggest budget gap in memory. We can thank Speaker Craddick for this loss of institutional knowledge.

And perhaps that’s what the leadership thought it wanted—while freshmen like Jack Stick (R-Austin) try to decipher the budget and its arcane Tolkien-like language, a select few legislators will make the real decisions for everyone else to rubber stamp. It’s easier to cut a program if half the committee’s never heard of it. It’s also safe to assume Coleman, Gallego and Hochberg wouldn’t have signed off to cut programs they’ve worked on for years.

Now the party is over. After three weeks of jaw-dropping agency testimony, some of the fiscally inexperienced members are realizing just how stingy Texas is with its poor and sick. It’s becoming clear the Lege can’t cut its way to a balanced budget without turning the state into Argentina. So the question isn’t if, but when, the Republican leadership will put a tax increase back on the table (though even that may not be enough). As many of the budget newcomers are probably finding out, it’s easy to rail against bloated government on the campaign trail or at policy forums and cocktail parties, it’s a little tougher to cut a social service that will doom the state’s neediest to jail, homelessness or death. —DM

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST