With all key pieces of the budget puzzle squarely in place, the regular session of the 83rd Regular Session adjourned sine die (“without another day”) yesterday. This session will be remembered for the dramatic increase in spending, little reforms, and lackluster tax relief.
In other words, a session that began with a whimper ended with a wince.
After several days of playing parliamentary chicken with each other, both chambers finally agreed to key pieces of a budget deal, sending the largest budget in state history to the governor’s desk.
Lawmakers will be all too eager to tell you what a conservative budget they passed this time around, keeping everything within the weak LBB spending cap, even proudly declaring that general revenue increased less than the growth of population and inflation.
Technically, it’s true, but only because they conveniently ignore the extra “supplemental appropriations” that they pass outside of the budget… often back-filling money into a previous budget before the current fiscal biennium is technically over.
A more accurate assessment of legislator’s spending habits is to compare all spending done in one legislative session to the next.
According to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, total funds spent from general revenue and the Economic Stabilization Fund (treated as general revenue spending unless constitutionally dedicated) during last legislative session totaled approximately $84 billion. This session, lawmakers spent approximately $106 billion from general revenue and the ESF.
That’s a $22 billion (26 percent) increase in spending from funds lawmakers have complete discretion over!
Mind you, the state treasury realized an $8 billion surplus in general revenue when lawmakers arrived in Austin in January. That wasn’t enough to satisfy the Legislature’s spending appetite—they committed to spending $4 billion from the state’s savings account on top of it.
Did taxpayers at least get any tax relief in the process? Barely.
While legislators were busy voting to raise their pensions and giving Democrats virtually all the public education spending they wanted, they passed a modest franchise tax relief bill with a fiscal note of about a half a billion dollars—about a billion dollars less than what Gov. Perry demanded to see on his desk if members wanted to “enjoy their summer.”
Legislators will claim the System Benefit Fund—a program designed to help low-income Texans with their utility bill that was never used—should count as tax relief too. But it isn’t technically a tax. It’s a fee that will stop being collected—the existing funds of which will be used on those who never paid the fee.
It’s going to take a lot of spinning for lawmakers to make this session sound successful, but there’s no doubt they’ll be trying hard when they finally return home to their districts. It’s almost election season, after all!