While reducing debt is generally a good thing, comments by State Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton), a lieutenant of liberal House Speaker Joe Straus, reveal what conservatives have feared – some “debt reduction efforts” in the legislature have ulterior motivations. As he noted in the Austin American Statesman, Otto is only interested in buying down state debt so that he has room for more debt in the future.
“The best way to utilize these funds, in my opinion, is to pay down debt, which gives you greater capacity for borrowing in the future,” said Otto. “It also saves you immediately on the debt service payments that you’re making on the current debt by being able to retire it.”
Otto and others in House leadership are pushing debt reduction ahead of tax cuts. While buying down debt early would indeed save the State of Texas money, any savings gained would be eviscerated if the effort simply empowered future legislatures to run up new debt.
Due to the spending cap, which conservative lawmakers want to further reinforce, legislators are being forced to use excess funds this session in beneficial ways. Conservatives in the Senate, led by Finance Chair Sen. Jane Nelson, are moving expeditiously on tax relief.
Liberal Republicans and Democrats in control of the Texas House oppose the cuts, however, because they would semi-permanently reduce their ability to overspend. The hope of these moderate and liberal officials is to retain current tax rates for use in future legislatures. By putting the current surplus towards early debt retirement, they hope some future legislature containing more Democrats and liberal Republicans will be able to use all of the current revenue, and the extra room on the state’s credit card, to grow government.
The scenario illustrates why tax cuts are so important—beyond keeping more money in the pockets of hardworking Texans, they put real restraints on government, something Empower Texans Executive Director Dustin Matocha articulated last month:
“Cutting taxes directly cuts the amount of revenue legislators and bureaucrats have to spend, which thereby forces them to prioritize spending by cutting unnecessary and wasteful programs and keeping our government operating within its constitutionally-defined bounds.”
Conservatives must keep the pressure on elected officials in Austin to limit government expansion rather than enable it.