Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
Texas senators diligently assembled a proposed state budget over the last six months, and then finished off their careful work with a chainsaw.
For all of the care put into the $213.4 billion plan by Sen. Jane Nelson and others, the budget delivers one big spending cut with a broadax instead of a scalpel.
After pages of detailed spending suggestions, this item — shown in full so you can savor the Legislature’s poetic prowess — appears in a section titled Agency Non-discretionary Transfer Provisions:
"Sec. 15.05. Budget Reduction. General Revenue appropriations for the 2018-19 biennium made elsewhere in this Act for all state agencies, institutions of higher education, courts and legislative entities are hereby reduced by 1.5 percent, with the exception of appropriations for the Foundation School Program as referenced in Rider 3 of the bill pattern for the Texas Education Agency.
"The appropriation of any Federal or Other funds associated with the aforementioned General Revenue appropriation reduction that would be affected by such a reduction of General Revenue appropriations are also hereby reduced. Any references made in rider to appropriations affected by this provision shall be considered to be commensurately adjusted."
This is like getting a careful haircut and then deciding to whack an extra inch off the top — or wherever. It’s a blunt instrument of the kind that comes into use when you have carefully cut everything you believe can be carefully cut — and you still want to add another $1.1 billion to your proposed savings.
Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, wanted to come in low and figure out which programs and services really need more money than the Senate has proposed. By all accounts, legislators were elbow-deep in the details before the session, before the general elections, before the state’s kids were back in school.
Without that blanket reduction, the Senate’s proposal would’ve been just a skosh under the comptroller’s estimate of how much money will be available to spend.
The Senate’s proposal was $210 million lower than that — an amount that might make headlines as a Lotto Texas prize but not in Texas state finance. The House’s general revenue number was higher than Hegar’s, at $108.9 billion.
Somewhere along the way, the Senate added some padding, in the form of a $1.1 billion amputation that cuts everything except for a key public education account.
Those two paragraphs mean that every general revenue number in the Senate proposal — outside of the protected Foundation School Fund — is 1.5 percent too high.
Imagine every number in the Senate with just a little off the top.
For instance, where it says $800 million should go to the Department of Public Safety for border security, the real number — figured in your head as you go, like a currency conversion — is $788 million. The health and human services budget, as proposed, is overstated by $489 million. And so on. Even education — the part outside of that one account — would be cut, by about $309 million.
One point of interest: There’s a projected shortfall of about $1.2 billion in the current Medicaid budget. That’s something lawmakers will have to mend, and senators might have had that in mind when they brought out the chainsaw.
This is hardly the only difference between the House and the Senate, but it’s a hard one to negotiate. Between now and Memorial Day, the Senate and House budgeteers will be going line by line through the two-year budget, the idea being to spend as little as possible on the government they’ve promised to Texans.
They’re supposed to be carefully loading the state’s grocery cart, balancing what they need and the amount they have to spend. Across-the-board cuts are satisfying because they save an exact amount of money, but sloppy because they treat almost everything in the budget as equally important.
This is the kind of cut you make at the checkout counter when you’re a little bit short. The final checkout, of course, is 17 weeks away, when the budget is signed and the comptroller comes back and says there is — or is not — enough money to cover it.
“It’s unusual, but not unprecedented,” said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, of the Senate’s strategy. “What ultimately matters is how the comptroller scores the final bill.”
The House started higher, albeit well below the growth-in-spending limit set by lawmakers last year, and the two proposals remain $4.2 billion apart in state spending if you disregard the Senate’s blunt cut.
They’re just not as far apart as they seem.
More columns from Ross Ramsey:
- A recent study of mayoral races — those important but rarely epic meat-and-potatoes exercises in civic responsibility — revealed some ugly facts about voters in general and Texas voters in particular.
- For lessons in how to speak positively about bad news — without telling lies — you might consider studying at the feet of the people who write the Texas budget.
- In their first-day numbers, the Texas Legislature's two chambers didn’t even agree on the size of the current budget. The House baked in some supplemental expenses that the Senate left that out.