Senators Look for Money Without Saying "Taxes"

Senate Finance Committee Chair Sen. Steve Ogden and Sen. John Whitmire listen during committee meeting on April 19th, 2011
Senate Finance Committee Chair Sen. Steve Ogden and Sen. John Whitmire listen during committee meeting on April 19th, 2011

State senators have unveiled a list of almost $5 billion in cash-flow tricks, property sales and fees that could be used to ease cuts in the state budget, but it's not enough to completely close the gap between what they have available and what they hope to spend.

The Senate Finance Committee is wrapping up its most pressing work this week, planning to vote on a proposed 2012-13 state budget, a $4.3 billion package to eliminate the deficit in the current budget, and some or all of the revenue measures suggested today as a way to help pay for all of it.

The House already approved a $164.5 billion budget. The bottom-line numbers on the Senate plan are not yet available to the public, but senators have said their total is about $16 billion larger than the House's plan. Both plans are lower than the current budget, and neither takes into account population and inflation in programs like Medicaid and public education.

The proposals from Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, total $4.8 billion and include $2 billion in deferred payments, which help balance the budget by moving costs from the end of fiscal 2013 into the beginning of 2014. The state still has to make the payments, but not as part of the new budget. Another $1.4 billion comes from accelerated tax collections, in which the state moves the receipt of some of its taxes — on motor fuels, alcoholic beverages, corporate franchise and sales — from a later budget into an earlier one. Both maneuvers allow the state to pick which payments and which receipts will count for and against the budget they're writing. Another $593 million comes from unspecified measures that, he said, would not require any changes in law.

The remaining $800 million comes from property sales, fee increases (on custom brokers stamps, process server certificates, a tax on small cigars labeled as a fee), changes in unclaimed property programs, and other measures.

Duncan said that all but a handful of the ideas are already in various bills being considered by the Legislature. He didn't say whether any of the money on his list was already counted in either the House or Senate budget, or both. 

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, didn't take any votes, saying he wanted to give members time to consider the ideas in that and other pieces of legislation. Before the week is out, he said, the panel will consider the current budget, the next one, the fiscal measures and SB 22, which would remake the state's school finance system and, budget-writers hope, make cuts to public education more palatable.

The committee also talked about other ideas, like moving more money from the Permanent School Fund into the Available School Fund. The former is the state's endowment for public schools, while the latter is the income from that endowment that's actually used to pay for schools. Ogden wants to free $2 billion for public schools, but other senators seemed reluctant. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said the money Ogden is after is used to guarantee local school bonds, lowering what local school districts pay when they borrow money. "This is bad public policy in my opinion," he said.

Ogden defended the idea, saying it's preferable to making cuts and that, as a constitutional amendment, it would be left to voters. "In defense of this, once again, we're asking the people of the state of Texas what they want to do with their money," he said. "They might say no. But I don't think it's wrong to give them a choice."

The General Land Office oversees those investments, and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a former legislator, said the fund hasn't been raided in well over a century, when the state used it to finance its army in "the War Between the States." That left "such a bad taste," he said, that the state banned such raids in the constitution. He recommended a way to get $300 million for the state budget but was reluctant to hit the endowment fund itself.

"We have an alternative," he said. "It's called the Rainy Day Fund."

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.