Spending-Limits Bill Serves as a Great Excuse

Lawmakers, as with a lot of people who spend too much time in the self-help aisle at the bookstore, don’t trust themselves to behave.

They apparently don’t trust each other, either.

Conservatives are once again proposing a law that would restrain any attempt to spend more money than can be justified by the state’s growth.

What happened to just doing things the way you think they should be done? One way to limit spending is simply to spend less, but that would win little applause; putting a limit in place converts an act of ordinary fiscal planning into a political accomplishment.

The gag is that lawmakers can change the laws that bind them. In fact, the Legislature cannot legally bind future legislatures to do its bidding. It can, however, make those future lawmakers uncomfortable, potentially forcing them to vote to spend over some future limit. There is a limit now, but it’s loose.

The latest proposal would limit growth by linking it to something outside the Legislature’s control, to population increases and inflation. Budget writers are good at bending rules like that, but the new one would be less flexible than the current one.

Imposing a limit includes an unspoken assumption that the state is now spending the right amount of money, that there is enough in the pot to cover the costs of roads, water, prisons, health care, education and state police.

The state does spend a ton of money — no arguing that. The biennial state budget increased to $187.5 billion in 2009 from $62.8 billion in 1991, tripling in size and apparently raising the blood pressure of a significant number of conservatives. The budget approved in 2011, now in effect, came in at $173.5 billion. That number will rise: The current budget did not include full financing for Medicaid and other programs. One of the first chores for the next Legislature will be to pass a supplemental spending bill to fix that, raising the total tab in the process.

Those last two legislatures had spending limits of the real kind: State taxes and fees and other revenue sources were not producing enough money to pay for the programs and services already on the books. Almost everybody had promised voters they would not raise taxes, though they were a bit more malleable about new and higher fees.

You don’t need a spending cap when you don’t have any money to spend.

Those sources of revenue are in better shape now. The economy has improved. The oil patch is booming. The comptroller’s official estimate of how much money the state would bring in during the current two-year budget proved to be far short of the mark. Lawmakers had the money, it turns out, to fully finance Medicaid and public education two years ago — they just didn’t know it.

Now they do. Some of that windfall will go to fix the current budget. Some will go into the state’s Rainy Day Fund — a savings account of sorts that state officials have agreed not to spend on continuing programs. It’s for one-time expenses only, unless legislators change their minds. It could be used, if they consent, for the hole in the current budget. That would leave the larger-than-expected income from sales and other taxes for the next budget.

Money from the account could seed a water plan — a suggestion of several lawmakers as well as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Gov. Rick Perry has aides working on tax breaks that might give some of the money back to voters.

Notions like that are only possible when there is more money than lawmakers are already committed to spend. And they tend to spend every available dollar, which is why they are talking so much about constraining themselves.

Acting quietly isn’t the way lawmakers think. It’s not the way most people think. A diet is easiest when the pantry is bare. A budget is easiest when the money isn’t there.

It’s one thing for politicians to say they love you but they don’t have the money to finance your wishes; it’s quite another thing to deny you when the money is available.

The money appears to be available. The economy and the population are growing. And the lawmakers are looking for an easier way to say no.

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.