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CAPITOL OFFENSES Bush’s Budget Crunch BY LOUIS DUBOSE 0 n the day after his State of the State address in . January, Governor Bush invited the media over for a preview of his budget. It was a typical George W press conference: he engaged the Capitol press corps in friendly banter, then reached into a large box filled with bound copies of the budget only to demur “I want your undivided attention. I don ‘t want you flipping pages while I talk,” he said. When he finished his fifteen-minute budget overview, the Governor went so far as to announce that the first copy would be handed out as a prize: “And the winner is the reporter least likely to read the budget Wayne Slater:” Slater, a Dallas Morning News veteran known to read budgets, comptroller’s reports, and House Research Organization briefing books in his leisure time, went along with the gag and stepped up to receive his copy. There was even a grip-and-grin photo, as Associated Press photographer Harry Cabluck stepped forward to shoot the Governor handing the budget to a sheepish Slater. Then the Governor’s budget director, Albert Hawkins, stepped in to do the heavy lifting, until the press conference ended as many of them do Press Secretary Karen Hughes answered questions, then went head to head with reporters in an aggressive defense of her boss. This occasion was one of those “definition of what is is” arguments, when Hughes went ballistic after two reporters said the Governor had broken a campaign promise by failing to deliver on his tax holiday for the purchase of school supplies. “It wasn’t a promise, it was a proposal!” Hughes said, growing angrier as several reporters argued that the Governor had repeatedly promised voters a sales tax holiday. Finally, A.P. bureau chief Michael Holmes announced that in the future we will refer to all campaign “promises” as “proposals.” Everyone laughed, and Hughes departed. The Governor’s proposed budget, however, is no laughing matter. We will soon have a better idea of which of his budget proposals will fly at the Lege. By late March, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander will release her updated revenue projections, determining the precise amount of surplus revenue available to divide between education and Bush’s proposed $2billion tax cut. \(“The story of this whole session,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Bill Ratliff said earlier, “is the debate be tween education and tax cuts. Everything Also by late March, the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by San Angelo Democrat Rob Junell, will have a final draft of Article XI of the appropriations bill. “All the unfunded needs and requests,” Appropriations Committee member Vilma Luna said, “are compiled in Article XI. It’s the state’s wish list.” Many of the requests, Luna added, will not be funded. The dollar amount of those unmet needs, according the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities \(February 23, Policy Page services funding being hardest hit. I set out to find Article XI, but was told it does not yet exist. “It’s a bunch of file boxes,” someone in the Appropriations Committee office said. “Pages and pages of agency requests.” With much of the budget already drafted, Article XI looks suspiciously like “The X Files”: a basement archive packed with information the government doesn’t want us to have. How big is the gap between the state’s needs and its budget appropriations? It all depends on who you ask. Talmadge Heflin, a Houston Republican who sits on Appropriations and chairs an Appropriations subcommittee, would tell you there is no gap. Government lives within its means on the revenue it collects, returns excess funds to taxpayers, and funds agencies in accordance with the constitution, which makes deficit spending illegal. Howard Dutton, a Houston Democrat and the thoughtful and cautious vice chair of House Public Education, sees things differently. On the day I talked to Dutton, he said that House Public Education which works much harder than its counterpart in the Senate was about to learn exactly how much new money it will have to work with. “Chairman Junell is about to turn over to us about three billion dollars in surplus funds that we will have to divide up among competing interests in public education. And right now, we have about twelve billion in very legitimate requests for very real needs for public education.” So the Solomonic demand on the education committee will be to turn $3 billion into $12 billion which of course will not happen. At the end of the session, Dutton said, public education in Texas will again be underfunded. In this context, the Governor’s $2 billion giveback in property tax relief \(on a tax that Center for Public Policy Priorities economist Dick Lavine describes as the most progressive in the state, as it is based on the value of agement of the state’s economy. “Is the tax giveback a political move by the Governor?” I asked another Appropriations Committee member. She said she would answer my question if I would comply with two requests. “Don’t use my name and turn off your tape recorder.” When I did, she responded: “You’re goddamned right it’s political. Everybody on the committee knows it.” But how to prove the obvious beyond looking at the state’s budgetary needs as they compare to the bottom line of the appropriation bill? Austin American -Statesman editorial page editor Mary Alice Davis, whose years of editing at the House Research Organization has made her one of the best policy analysts working for any See “Budget,” page 30 APRIL 2, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15