Bill Ratliff, Free to Speak His Mind, Tackles Budget

Bill Ratliff in the Senate 2003
Bill Ratliff in the Senate 2003

Watch what politicians say when they no longer have to watch what they say.

Bill Ratliff, a former lieutenant governor and state senator, chaired the Senate's education and finance committees at various times. In real life, he's an engineer and does some lobbying. One of his sons, Thomas, is on the State Board of Education. Another, Bennett, is running for an open seat in the Texas House.

The old man is free from the ballot. Off the leash.

Ratliff, who was in office from 1989 to 2003, was never one to honor political dogma. But now he's talking about the state budget in particularly dire terms. He contends that the state has dug a hole that will make its next budget even worse than the terrible budget that's now in effect, that lawmakers have spent billions more than state revenue can cover and have obligated themselves to use future state income to cover current expenses. What's more, he said, accumulated public education cuts total more than $13 billion over the last four years.

Let's put that "terrible" in context. Lawmakers can do whatever they think voters want them to do, but the current budget doesn't balance the promises they have made to voters with the money they have available to pay for programs. Whether they have overpromised goods and services or failed to produce the money those things cost, there's not enough cash on the counter to pay for the stuff they've got in their grocery basket. For instance, promises to make a priority of public education.

Ratliff says the problem has compounded and gets worse with every budget.

"I can't cover all of the shortcomings in this budget," he told a group at the University of Texas this year. "I wish I could."

His talk came with spreadsheets — which is one of the perils of letting an engineer talk about a budget. But the numbers tell a story. The state budgeted $22.3 billion for Medicaid in its 2010 fiscal year, $22.7 billion in 2011, then $24.9 billion in 2012 and then $15.8 billion for 2013. The last number is a bona fide stinker; lawmakers knew they were leaving a hole in the budget when they did it, but they were betting that either the state's economy would improve, that federal Medicaid requirements would change or that some other piece of luck would save them before the bills came due. Or that they could come back in January 2013 and fill that hole with money from the state's Rainy Day Fund.

It's a big hole, no matter how you fill it.

And according to Ratliff, that sort of thing has become a habit. By his calculations, the state outspent its income by $27 billion in the last 10 years. That's the amount of increase in the state's bonded indebtedness.

Ratliff argues that the current budget and the one that preceded it should have included more money for public education. Another series of budget numbers, this one starting with the amount spent on public education in the 2008 fiscal year: $24.3 billion, $25.9 billion, $25.8 billion, $25.6 billion, $25.4 billion, $21.9 billion. If you tie the figures to enrollment growth, the student population increased by 320,000 and the last number in that series would be $27.3 billion. If you were to include a 2 percent inflation rate, it would be $29.4 billion.

Ratliff also said the state has granted nearly 7,000 waivers to the 22-1 student-teacher ratios it requires in public schools. Private schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, he pointed out, have an average class size of 16 students. "If we ran public schools like a business, our classes would have 16 students in them," he said. Instead, he added, the state has 170,000 of its students in overcrowded classrooms.

The former budget writer says the accumulated cuts conflict with political promises to make public education the highest priority.

"As far as I'm concerned, the highest priority took the biggest hit," he said.

Ratliff, a Republican, knows his way around the budget, and around conservative politics in Texas. But there's an important difference between him and the people who are still in office: He doesn't have to listen to voters.

Bill Ratliff has previously donated to The Texas Tribune.

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