Gov. Rick Perry's Symbolic Cuts and His Real Ones

If you’re going to make a bunch of people mad, you should make sure you’re getting something for it.

Gov. Rick Perry, in his State of the State address on Tuesday, proposed cutting off financing for the state’s Historical Commission and the Commission on the Arts. He has other small agencies in his sights, too, including the advocate for residential and small business utility customers and the state’s Department of Rural Affairs.

But the Arts and Historical panels are a different kind of cat, a pet concern of well-to-do Texans, among others, including more than a few Republicans.

Karl Rove, back when he was a provincial political operator, balanced his seasonal political business with a direct mail fund-raising consultancy for art museums and other cultural outfits. He sold it when he sold his other business — to concentrate fully on George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign — but remarked at one point that the two fundraising bases had considerable overlap.

Suspending financing for the Texas Historical Commission, as the governor suggested — he doesn’t want to kill the agency, just put most of it to sleep for at least two years — would save the state $4.6 million on top of what’s already saved by the Legislature’s recommendations. Quick math: The agency gets $35.7 million in the current budget, asked for $44.2 million in the coming two-year budget, and lawmakers recommended giving it $19.2 million.

 

Perry’s prescription for the Commission on the Arts is similar, saving the state $5.1 million in the next two years on top of what lawmakers would save with their proposed cuts. Fully funded, it’s a financial dust mite: It asked for $14.5 million over the next two years, down from the $15.9 million in the current budget.

Those are two of four small agencies in line for Perry’s starvation diet (the boards of professional geoscientists and professional land surveying are the others). Eight more relative small fries would be consolidated into other agencies. He’s got $468.5 million in savings on that list, which isn’t nothing, but most of it — $412.1 million — would come from selling land, chasing debts owed the state, selling a state prison, using managed care in a prison health program and charging state employees a fee for insured dependents who can get health insurance elsewhere.

The biggest program at the Historical Commission is a courthouse renovation and preservation program — financed by bonds — that started in the previous administration, when Bush was governor. Most of the Arts Commission money goes to arts grants throughout the state.

In the heart of Perry’s budget proposal, he simply looked at what the House and the Senate had proposed for each agency and took the lower of the two numbers. His own proposals were more symbolic than lucrative and trivialize the cuts that are being made elsewhere.

Perry didn’t talk about what it might mean to cut almost $10 billion from public education with 80,000 new students joining that system every year. He didn’t talk about how cuts of 10 percent or more in what the state pays Medicaid providers — doctors and hospitals and such — might shake out. He talked about closing a rural affairs office that most people haven’t heard of and of cutting frills like archaeological projects and arts festivals.

It creates the impression that the budget can be balanced by snipping some minor programs that don’t seem vital and diverts attention from vital programs that, in this address, seemed minor.

There is plenty of money in what the state’s budget analysts refer to as the “digital dust” — the small expenditures that, taken alone, are fairly insignificant. The $56.4 million in the suspensions and consolidations on the governor’s list could probably be put to good use elsewhere. Whether that’s a better use is up to the budget writers.

A quick example, with big numbers: If you cut $5 billion from the annual state education budget, you’ve cut roughly $1,000 for every student in the public schools. The other cuts Perry is talking about would restore that $1,000 for each of 56,400 kids. That’s a fraction of the total, but it’s a lot of kids.

Writing a budget is an exercise in just those sorts of equivalencies. Would this particular dollar be best spent on arts, history, public education, luring companies to Texas, ensuring air safety or keeping a no-new-taxes promise?

In the governor’s State of the State, he was describing Texas now, in present tense. It’s the Legislature, led by the budget writers, who will determine what he’s talking about at the next address, in two years.

 

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