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Analysis: Big Money, Little Ideas in Legislature

With a huge pot of extra money to inspire them or tempt them to make grand proposals, Texas lawmakers have opted for thrift over big ideas. That's a little out of character.

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The state of Texas is arguably in position to meet all of its obligations without exceeding the spending gap, which would leave $17 billion in extra money and rainy day funds.

You can make a perfectly reasonable argument for leaving the money alone, which is apparently what’s going to happen during this legislative session. But isn’t it strange that none of those statewide officials and legislators has come up with some fantastic scheme for all that cash? No big dreams? It could be a genuinely big tax cut, a transportation plan, funding for more water projects or public schools, or whatever.

The lack of such a plan is a tiny piece of evidence that none of the people serving in Texas government really wants to write a chapter in the history books. Method, motive and opportunity — all of the elements of crime and government — are present here.

The government has a whole lot of money, and nobody is taking a really big bite at it. It's like having a big rocket and no moon to point it at. 

Spending the money would be easy. The budget approved by the Texas House last week has more than $30 billion in unfunded programs and services tucked into Article 11 — the so-called wish list of things that can still be talked about but are unlikely to appear in the final budget. The Senate will vote this week on its own version of the budget, complete with a wish list of about $13 billion, by one estimate.

The dollar amounts vary, but those wish lists are regular features of state budgets. What is peculiar here is to see the ingredients of a big move without seeing the big move.

Sure, such a move could be a bust.

In 2002, then-Gov. Rick Perry wanted to build a highway system little green aliens could see from Mars. His Trans-Texas Corridor turned out to be unpopular, but at least he tried. And even after his minions had done their best to stamp out any evidence of the idea in the state’s transportation policy, elements of the Trans-Texas Corridor can still be found in the construction and planning that followed his announcement.

In 1991, then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock endorsed an income tax as the solution to a state deficit and then, after seeing the political fallout, conjured up a constitutional amendment that allowed voters to express their disapproval of income taxes and to save his own political hide. Like Perry’s highway plan, Bullock’s income tax freaked out some of his own supporters.

They swung and missed, but they were working in the tradition of public officials in Texas trying to do big things. Someone proposed big, great colleges once. Somebody demanded a system of farm-to-market roads that are far more important to city dwellers than the city dwellers know. Somebody created a state.

Not these guys. For the current bunch, it’s not the feat — it’s the timidity.

Everybody in Texas government is playing small ball. They have the means to do big things, but not the desire. The House wants to add $3 billion to public education spending, and the Senate is already halfway there. The House and Senate are arguing over tax cuts, but they’re both in the $4.5 billion range and in real danger of approving tax cuts so small that few consumers — or voters — will even notice.

They worry over a political climate where price is often more important than product, where growth in government spending gets more attention than how money is spent. For evidence of that, just compare the number of legislators who are conversant in spending growth with the number conversant in multimillion-dollar contracting calamities in several state agencies.

That makes some sense, if you watch political polls. Texas voters are price sensitive, and their representatives are sensitive to those voters.

Voters, however, have been known to embrace new ideas, and this is a rare moment where the state has the means to do something interesting. It is remarkable that nobody seems to have noticed.

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State government 84th Legislative Session Budget Rick Perry Texas Legislature