When the Texas Legislature met in 2003, it appropriated $115.4 billion of your money. Last year, in its most recent session, it appropriated $258.2 billion.

In other words, in the last 16 years, Texas state government spending has more than doubled, increasing by $142 billion.

The rapid increase in spending continues. The $258.2 billion the Legislature appropriated last year was up $40 billion, or 18.3 percent, over 2017.

That is not what the government will tell you, however.

The Legislative Budget Board reported last May that state spending was up only 6.3 percent, or as low as 4.2 percent if one removes spending on schools for property tax relief. While those numbers are accurate as far as they go, they employ various methods to mask the extent of actual spending growth.

For instance, instead of looking at all the money appropriated during the session as a whole, it breaks down the spending into biennia, or two-year budget periods. Then the Legislature backloads money into the current biennium, which raises the baseline and thus lowers what they report as the spending increase for the upcoming biennium.

Also thrown into the mix is the claim that spending has stayed below the state’s constitutional limit on spending growth. Again, that claim is accurate. Yet the limit allows much more growth than is healthy for the economy, and can only be accurately calculated more than two years after the Legislature has left town. There is almost zero accountability.

As you can see, it gets complicated. If you do not understand all this, that is actually a design feature, not a bug. The more complex, the easier it is to hide the spending growth.

Perhaps, though, it is time for some simplicity. How about the Texas Legislature adopting a budget that does not grow at all? We have tried zero accountability. Why not a zero-growth budget?

Think about it.

Do you think government is too big? A plurality of Americans do. Forty-two percent prefer less government and lower taxes over what we have today. A strong 56 percent majority believes the federal government has too much power today.

Then why have Americans, and Texans, been content with spending limits designed to allow the government to keep growing?

The rationale behind that criteria is that government is about the right size today. Letting it grow to keep up with population growth plus inflation just keeps government at the same level.

Even if the first premise were correct, spending growth at population growth plus inflation provides the government greater opportunities to control our lives. But the first premise is not true; government today is already too big and too powerful.

The government we have today is powerful enough to threaten and almost bankrupt a distinguished and innocent three-star general. The government we have today is powerful enough to lock up Laredo beauticians for working in their homes. The government we have today is powerful enough to shut down Dallas automotive businesses on Ross Avenue.

A growing government also takes more of our money. Last year, the average American worked three and a half months to pay her taxes. Paying for the burden of regulations usually takes another three months. In other words, Americans work about half the year to pay off the cost of government.

We need to completely stop the growth of government.

If the state had kept its spending flat in 2019, Texans could have received a tax cut of up to $40 billion. That equals $1,338 on average for each and every Texan, or $5,351 for a family of four. That is real money.

The other great thing about a zero-growth budget is that it is simple. No shenanigans. The government spent so much last time; it only gets to spend the same amount this time.

Let us do the math for 2021.

The Legislature appropriated $258.2 billion in 2019. But $8.1 billion of that was for what legislative leaders promised would be one-time spending for Hurricane Harvey. Taking that out, when the 181 members of the Texas Legislature show up in January, they will have $250.1 billion to spend.

Because federal funds are often used to manipulate the budget, it is good to have a spending number for state funds too. Last session, state funds spending totaled $169.6 billion, but $6 billion of that was from the Rainy Day Fund for one-time emergency spending on Harvey and other items. Take that out, and the limit on state funds spending in 2021 is $163.6 billion.

Those are limits on ALL spending. No matter whether the money is intended for the current 2020-21 biennium or the next 2022-23 biennium. No matter whether we have another hurricane. No matter if COVID-19 shows back up. No matter what claims for “emergency” spending are made.

Some purists might complain that this does not go far enough. If government is already too big, why not actually cut spending and make government smaller? Fair enough. But we have to start somewhere, so let us go at the present with simply stopping the government from getting any bigger.

To recap, $250.1 billion. $163.6 billion. Two numbers, but one simple purpose: to stop the growth of Texas government in order to restore the liberty of Texans.

This is a commentary submitted and published with the author’s permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to submission@texasscorecard.com.

Bill Peacock

Bill Peacock is a research analyst and writer living in Austin, Texas. More of his writing can be found at ExcellentThought.net.