After a session in which lawmakers were fighting over how to do more with less, the mantra of the 83rd legislative session could end up being "Go big or go home."
Following Monday’s rosy budget estimate from Comptroller Susan Combs, there is widespread interest among state leaders to make large investments in Texas' future this session, specifically billion-dollar commitments to water and transportation projects that prepare Texas for a population boom demographers warn is on the way.
“I think there’s kind of a mood in the Legislature right now for Texas to get back to doing big things,” state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said Thursday at a panel discussion called “Getting a Grip on Government Spending” hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. “Last time, everything was just completely dominated by how we balance the budget.”
Combs announced this week that lawmakers would have $101.4 billion in available state spending to build its next two-year budget, along with an extra $11.8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. While many are calling for the surplus to be used to restore cuts made two years ago to public education, the figures appear to be adding momentum to talks under way for the past year on how to address the state’s long-term infrastructure problems.
A severe drought that has left some Texas communities reeling has put funding water projects at the top of many lawmakers’ agenda. State Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, filed two bills this week that would allocate a one-time, $2 billion sum from Texas' Rainy Day Fund to create a revolving fund for water-supply projects.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, noted that it was a legislative rider that he added to an appropriations bill in 1993 that created the state’s original water plan.
“We haven’t done anything on that since 1993,” Coleman said. “If it wasn’t for the drought, I think we’d still be saying we’re not going to do anything.”
Lawmakers are also considering several ways to create a reliable revenue stream for transportation. Over the past decade, the Texas Department of Transportation has expanded the state’s road network largely through amassing billions of dollars in debt and pushing through toll projects. TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson has said the agency needs an extra $1 billion a year for maintenance and an additional $3 billion a year to ease congestion.
State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, who served as vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee in the last session, said the current talk about transportation funding options has reached a new level of seriousness.
“That’s what so encouraging about this session,” Darby said. “We’ve got more people talking about how do we fix this and not just how we get by.”
The state’s top three leaders, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Joe Straus, are all signaling a desire to pass measures this session that prepare the state for its more crowded future. At a news conference this week, Perry praised Dewhurst and Straus for their leadership and said that the three men “share a vision” for the session.
“I do agree with the lieutenant governor and the speaker that water and the availability of and the creation of and the transportation of water is going to be a focal point of this legislative session,” Perry said.
At the same time, such lofty goals could be easily sidelined by other priorities. At the same press conference, Perry, Dewhurst and Straus also touted an interest in pursuing more tax relief this session. Along with efforts to boost funding for public education, an ongoing school finance lawsuit could prompt lawmakers to set aside a large pot of money to pay for a judgment that forces the state to put more money into schools.
“That’s why we don’t need politicians,” state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said at Thursday’s panel discussion on government spending. “That’s why we need statesmen to address these problems.”