More a Call to Arms Than a Budget

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, lays out House Bill 1.
State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, lays out House Bill 1.

Let’s assume that the budgeteers in the Texas House are serious about the $156.4 billion biennial spending plan they proposed last week.

That they really aren’t going to put up the money to educate the 80,000 new students who join the state’s public school systems every year (that number also takes into account the students who leave each year) and that schools will get $9.8 billion less than they are due under the Legislature’s current financing formulas. That they’re going to cut the number of college students who receive financial aid from Texas Grants to 27,135 in 2013 from 86,830 in 2011.

That they’re so pressed for cash that they’re going to charge state employees to park in state garages while they’re doing their state jobs and ask them to order double-doses of prescription pills and split them in half to save the state around $700,000 (bonus points for creativity; that’s Depression-era ingenuity, like reusing tin foil or hoarding soap chips).

That there’s no money for new enrollees to Medicaid or for inflation and increased use of the program by people in it now. That providers — doctors and hospitals and such — will get a 10 percent cut in their reimbursements and still accept Medicaid patients. That four community colleges and a state prison (that’s a first) should be closed. That financing for the state’s environmental monitoring of water and air quality should be halved. That the state’s Parks and Wildlife Department should lose a third of its financing.

The parade of horribles goes on for hundreds of pages. But the people putting on this show are presenting it to prevent it from happening.

In January 2003, with the state facing what seemed at the time to be a huge budget shortfall — $10 billion, as compared with $15 billion to $27 billion this time — Gov. Rick Perry laid out a 400-page budget with zeros where the dollar amounts usually go. It was a political stunt, meant to say the state should start from the bottom and work up, to assume that nothing in the previous budget was automatically included.

The budget is the government’s central policy document. Whatever lawmakers eventually approve will serve as the working blueprint for the state for the two years starting Sept. 1. But the budget released last week isn’t a blueprint — it’s a political document. It marks the shift from the theoretical rhetoric of the campaigns to the reality of government, from “We’re not going to take it anymore!” to “What is it we want government to do?”

In some ways, this House plan is the sort of stunt the governor pulled in 2003. Nobody has leaped up to say they’d vote for it, or really even to defend it. State Rep. Jim Pitts, the Waxahachie Republican who leads the Appropriations Committee and whose name is on the bill, told his colleagues in a session explaining the proposal that it would change as the session went along — a way of saying things will be bad, but not this bad.

So what’s the point of introducing it? To sound the alarm and see who answers. It’s a Chicken Little budget. “You know, there’s nothing in this bill that’s not painful,” Pitts said.

The shock comes from the attachment of things to numbers — the moment when the boring, dry math of the budget is translated into the programs and services provided by the state, when campaigners become lawmakers.

Remember when your favorite candy bar got smaller and the price stayed the same? That was effectively a price increase. And it’s just what’s happening in government at the moment, in Texas, in other states, and maybe, at some point, in Washington. Voters say they want to pay less. Governments — legislators — now have to show those voters what they’re giving up. And then they’ll make the choice between the need for thrift and the need for government and the things it provides: public safety, education, health care, roads and such.

It runs, in that way, just like a business. Want it? Pay for it. Don’t want to pay for it? Thanks for your interest — come back when you have the money.

Democrats don’t like it. They also don’t have the numbers to stop most of it. They have the small consolation of being able to blame the results on the other party, but it’s the results, and not the consolation, they’re interested in.

What about the voters? State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said the final budget would depend, to some extent, on who squawked loudest. “You’re going to feel the pain,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “This is the paradigm they’ve created. And now the question is whether or not Texans find that acceptable.”

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.