Don’t think election’s matter? Try this next one on for your current tax burden. Because of the stimulus dollars handed down from Washington earlier in the year dealing with the federally-mandated Medicaid program, Texas will be facing a multi-billion dollar hole in the 2012-13 budget. How it is solved with depend upon whom we elect to office in 2010.

Up and down the ballot, Texans will need to ensure the folks elected in 2010 are willing to dial back what Washington imposed, and Austin accepted. Even what was accepted in something like good faith.

According to Dallas Morning News reporter Bob Garrett, the chief budget writer for the legislature said $4.5 billion (of the $14.4 billion in stimulus money that came to Texas) could represent an ongoing obligation.

Despite state leaders’ pleas that all stimulus dollars be spent on one-time, non-recurring items, “there are a couple of areas where that’s just not going to be possible,” said Legislative Budget Board director John O’Brien…

Most of that money went to pay for higher reimbursement rates for Medicaid. A significant chunk of those dollars were also used in public ed funding.

Barring an unlikely event — such as the feds continuing to fund the Medicaid program they mandate at these new levels, or ending the mandate altogether — Texas legislators will have six choices: (1) hope the dollars appear in the form of a stronger economy, (2) shift dollars from other programs, (3) raid the rainy day fund, (4) cut eligibility or services, (5) raise taxes, or (6) some combination thereof.

As folks will recall, the most egregious of the federal dollars were rejected — a half-billion of unemployment fund money. Those dollars came with requirements for permanent changes in state unemployment insurance law, ensuring very high taxes for decades to come.

The dollars discussed by O’Brien don’t carry the policy-change mandates, or even the requirement for ongoing costs. We hope. That’s a scary fiscal word, but one Garrett quoted O’Brien as using:

“we hope that agencies are spending money on one-time items and not getting used to having that money.”

Those dollars do require our political leaders to make decisions. Will they chose growing government with inevitably higher taxes, or responsible stewardship by reducing costs?

Gov. Rick Perry and the legislative leadership should demand a little more than hope and trust. The governor should probably be reassuring Texans right about now that the agencies under his control are, indeed, not getting used to those dollars. And strictly account for precisely the steps being taken to ensure the stimulus won’t appear as recurring costs in the future.

Meanwhile, Sen. Hutchison would do well to quit running around the state promising new programs that are demonstrably ineffective but very expensive — like her call for “basic education” to include “pre-K through 14.”

From both, and on down the ballot, Texans need candidates to talk about how they will hold the line on spending and ways to improve spending on the biggest line-items (health care and public education).

In this economic climate, and made clear in the report from Mr. O’Brien, taxpayers need to hear promises of new spending — or justifications for ongoing spending — as pledges of ruin in 2011.

Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael Quinn Sullivan is the publisher of Texas Scorecard. He is a native Texan, a graduate of Texas A&M, and Eagle Scout. Previously, he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine contributor, Capitol Hill staffer, think tank vice president. Michael and his wife have three adult children, and a dog. Check out his podcast, Reflections on Life and Liberty.

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