- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas, Jan. 14 (UPI) — The Texas Legislature convened Tuesday facing a $9.9 billion revenue shortfall, and social service advocates worried that programs to aid the poor would be among the first casualties of cost-cutting.

Republicans control the Legislature for the first time in 131 years and GOP Gov. Rick Perry said tax increases will not be needed to balance the budget during the 140-day session that ends in June.

"In tough economic times the focus must be on government spending less, not on taxpayers paying more," he said Monday after the state comptroller reported the grim news about the $9.9 billion shortfall.

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican, blamed the shortfall on excessive spending by the last Legislature, the anemic economy, and declining sales taxes, a major revenue source for Texas, which has no state income tax.

Texas lawmakers must balance the current $114 billion budget before they begin work on the next two-year cycle. Strayhorn said there is a $1.8 billion shortfall in the current fiscal period and an $8.1 billion deficit projected in the next budget cycle.

Democrats said they would fight deep cuts in social programs, pointing out that Texas already ranks near the bottom national in spending for the indigent.

"It's not like Texas is a big, fat government handout state," said state Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston. "We've got to ask, are you cutting responsibility and efficiently and intelligently? Because if you're not, you're hurting the people who can't afford to be hurt."

Republicans argued that adjustments can be made without kicking the poor and ailing from programs. They are considering a state hiring freeze, more efficient spending in school and health programs, and higher state fees.

Strayhorn has proposed 179 recommendations that would save the state $3.7 billion.

Next to the budget, the most serious challenge facing state legislators is the homeowners insurance crisis. Texans are paying the highest rates in the nation and Perry has designated reforms an emergency issue in the new legislative session.

In an historic ceremony, Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, was elected speaker of the House, the first Republican to hold that post in 131 years. The oil well service owner succeeds Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, who was speaker for 10 years.

Craddick, 59, is the longest serving member of the House. When he was first elected in 1969 there were only eight Republicans in the chamber. The GOP now controls the House 88-62 for the first time since Reconstruction.

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