While the legislature balanced the Lone Star State’s ledger-book last year, they did so in part by taking a well-worn, if unsavory, path to get there. A top priority for the next legislature must be to correct the creative accounting and get rid of the gimmicks so that the state can have an honest budget. And an honest budget debate.
It’s absolutely true that the lion’s share of the budget balancing act was accomplished through reductions in spending. Yet it is also undeniably true that the legislature balanced the budget with no small number of tricks that will demand a reckoning.
A story from the Associated Press recounts how a portion of the money from red-light cameras is supposed to go to the state, and then to fund emergency trauma care. The cities are remitting the cash from the cameras, but the money isn’t flowing to the trauma centers.
Why? The legislature is using the funds – some $46 million – to help keep the books in the black.
In fact, the Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press report that $4 billion in taxes and fees earmarked for specific projects were withheld by the legislature. And that doesn’t include the spending gimmicks, such as the purposeful under-funding of Medicaid (18 months instead of 24).
While it might make the books balance, it’s a practice that borders on being dishonest. If the legislature is going to assess a tax or a fee for a specific purpose, then those dollars should be used only for those specific purposes. Those revenues shouldn’t be allowed to sit in a slush fund protecting legislators – and the public – from a clear discussion about spending priorities.
Legislators are our employees, hired by the people to execute the affairs of the state. We expect them to be good stewards, accurately describing to us – as their employers – the finances of the state. Using budget gimmicks might get them through a session, but don’t serve well the people of Texas.
Too often politicians treat budgets the way college freshmen treat their dorm room, moving the sofa to cover dirt while hiding pizza boxes in the closet.
Rather than rearrange the furniture, Texans deserve the opportunity to clean up our fiscal house beginning with an honest budget free from smoke, mirrors, gimmicks and tricks.