A true fiscal conservative protects the taxpayers even when it will raise the ire of those around them. Comptroller Susan Combs inherited a structurally-flawed college program known as the Texas Tomorrow Fund.
In recent days she has taken difficult, but necessary, actions to protect the integrity of the fund. More importantly, she has protected the taxpayers who will ultimately bear any risks the fund’s structure might create.
The change in policy stops the payment of financial benefits to participants who cancel their contracts with the fund. In plain English: the Tomorrow Fund cannot be used as a taxpayer-backed, all-purpose savings plan. The fund was designed to let parents lock in tuition rates at Texas’ colleges with a structured savings plan.
From day-one it was about providing for college, not funding vacations or supplementing investment portfolios. Whether the Tomorrow Fund should have ever been created is a separate issue and beside the point, it exists. It is the comptroller’s responsibility to keep the fund solvent; otherwise, taxpayers are on the hook for making good on the contracts as the tuition bills come due.
When Comptroller Combs announced the policy change, she was criticized by some with varying motives. The plan should, and does, allow folks to take out their money if the child no longer needs the funds. At the same time, the contracts for those using this savings plan specifically allow the rules for withdrawing the money to be altered.
There are two important points for those currently in the fund: 1) if you use it for a child’s college education, despite stock market conditions the investment remains fully protected by the state constitution, and 2) it is probably an even better deal than originally intended when one considers the rising cost of tuition over the last decade.
But it should be such a deal only if used for the purpose intended: to save for college. Unfortunately, some have sought to use the Texas Tomorrow Fund as little more than a taxpayer-backed hedge fund. The old rules allowed people who canceled their contracts to not only get their money back, but also substantial interest from the taxpayers. That is unsustainable.
Combs’ changes take the taxpayers off the hook for these additional dollars, and it is an important step in preserving the financial viability of the fund. Those cashing out get their money back, but without anything extra. Think of it as the withdrawal penalty for using the fund for something other than college tuition. Remember, this was specifically created as a state-college savings fund, not a private retirement vehicle or vacation mad-money account.
When one considers the turmoil of the stock market of late, where millions lost most of their investment value, getting your money back doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.
Stepping back, it’s important to note Combs has a history of pursuing fiscally responsible policies. By her fourth day in office, her agency’s detailed expenditures were made available online. She has been a staunch supporter of transparency, leading Texas in what became the first-in-the-nation fiscal transparency program detailing every expenditure, contract and grant.
What many folks miss is that accountability is the necessary flip-side of transparency. Both of which are equally vital to spending efficiency and taxpayer protection. Combs has brought new and correct accountability to the Texas Tomorrow Fund.
Making government more efficient and its programs more accountable seldom generates the kind of headlines we see when an agency is caught wasting our money or bureaucrats with their hand in the till.
Rather than be criticized, Combs should be applauded for making the necessary decisions that ultimately benefit the taxpayers of Texas while securing the promise of tomorrow for the next generation.