Looking to get an early start on shaping budget discussions for the 2013 legislative session, the Texans for a Conservative Budget Coalition recommended Tuesday that lawmakers plan to reduce welfare spending, increase local control for public school districts, and consolidate or eliminate general revenue spending for several state agencies.
“The roadmap is very clear,” said Julie Drenner of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank and member of the coalition. “Government must prioritize spending on essential government functions only. When lawmakers look at questions, they must ask themselves only two questions: Do I reform it, or do I eliminate it?"
Bill Peacock, vice president for research at TPPF, said there needs to be a clear definition of the state's responsibility when it comes to funding public education.
"The state is required by the Texas Constitution to operate an efficient system of public, free schools," he said. "One of the reasons we think the state keeps getting enmeshed in lawsuits is that the state hasn’t done a good job of defining what that system looks like and what its responsibilites are."
Peacock also said that the foundation supports changing state requirements so charter schools and home rule school districts will be easier to create.
The coalition recommended eliminating general revenue funding for some state agencies, including the Texas Historical Commission, the Top 10 Percent Scholarship Program and several trusteed programs within the governor’s office, such as the Texas Enterprise Fund. The Enterprise Fund recently offered a $21 million incentive to Apple, which announced plans to expand operations in Austin.
Talmadge Heflin, director of the TPPF’s Center for Fiscal Policy, said the coalition did not have a position on the Apple offer. But he said the Enterprise Fund “is a type of subsidy, and we do not believe being fiscally responsible means giving subsidies out of taxpayers’ pockets to private business. That’s where we disagree.”
Arlene Wohlgemuth, executive director of the TPPF, said that eliminating the Historical Commission would not eliminate the functions of the commission.“We would move those [functions] to the governor’s office and those would continue,” she said.
State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, said the coalition's proposals would damage the state.
“This proposed policy-making agenda is a pending disaster in this state for women and men of all ages, including college students, minimum-wage workers, public schools, educators and public servants,” she said. “We cannot expect to undercut essential state programs ... and still expect Texas to thrive in the future.”
The coalition began during the 2011 legislative session and is based on the tenets that the Legislature should not raise taxes, increase spending or balance the budget using the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, or Rainy Day Fund.
It has reconvened now to address issues that are likely to develop as lawmakers create the 2014-15 state budget.
“The message we want to send with the revival of this coalition is, ‘That wasn’t the end,’” Joshua Treviño, the TPPF’s spokesman, said of the budget reductions in the 2011 session. “That was just a good start.”
According to the Heartland Institute, which is based in Illinois, state spending in Texas rose 310 percent between 1990 and 2012, and the 2013 Legislature would have to include an additional $4 billion to $6 billion in the next budget to keep pace.
“The bottom line principle for any budget is that you don’t spend more than you take in, and if you can avoid it, you don’t spend as much as you take in,” Treviño said. “Texas, over the past generation, doesn’t have a great record of adhering to those principles.”
F. Scott McCown, executive director for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the coalition’s proposals don't serve Texas' best interests.
“Slashing budgets even deeper than we just did in 2011 is not the path to prosperity in our state,” McCown said. “Instead, increasing our investment in education is the way forward. Between 2000 and 2010, the child population of the United States grew by about 2 million children, and over half of them were Texans. Our economy benefits from having so many young people — if we teach them the skills they need.”