- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas | There is one enduring political value in Texas: The state does not mollycoddle.

In the best of times, it spends as little as possible providing aid to the unemployed, the sick and the injured. Texans have consistently elected lawmakers who will add to the public safety net only when threatened with a federal lawsuit.

And now that the state must overcome a $15 billion budget shortfall, life for those who rely on the state for employment or support is likely to get even tougher.

The state comptroller announced Monday that the Texas state legislature will have roughly $8 billion less to spend in the next budget than it did in the last. The state will also be missing $7 billion in federal stimulus dollars it spent in the last budget. To make matters worse, state agencies have said they need an additional $12 billion just to maintain existing state services.

So if lawmakers want to maintain the status quo, they need to raise nearly $27 billion, roughly a third of all discretionary spending.

Other states with huge budget problems, such as California and Illinois, are looking at tax increases, but in the Lone Star State, where frontier self-sufficiency is exalted, the shortfall is another occasion to cut the budget. Every two years, in good economic times or bad, many state legislators pledge to cut spending, and they take those promises seriously.

“I don’t think it’s the end of the world,” Republican Gov. Rick Perry said in an interview after the new figures were released. “I think we have a budget of $76.5 billion and we’re going to live with that. … It’s only a budget hole when somebody has wished that they had more money.”

But some legislators worried that, in a state that prides itself on having a minimal safety net, this year’s cuts could go too far.

“There is a disconnect with reality,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat. “This legislature and this state government have always been efficient, and I’ll add to that, we’re very tight.”

Facing a similar crisis in 2003, state agency heads told lawmakers they were no longer cutting fat, but cutting muscle. In 2009, they said lawmakers were cutting into the bone.

Texas spends less per resident than any other state. It scores among the bottom five states in spending on public education, higher education and health care. For most Texans between 18 and 50 who do not have a child at home, food stamps are limited to three months in a three-year period.

“The decisions of this legislature will determine what kind of future Texas will have,” said Talmadge Heflin, director of the conservative Center for Fiscal Policy. “A budget within existing revenues will keep a light burden on Texas taxpayers, encouraging large businesses and entrepreneurs to create jobs here.”

But the gap is substantial. The state could cut all spending on natural resources, public safety, criminal justice and the judiciary and still not have enough to cover a $27 billion shortfall. Cutting that much from the Health and Human Services Commission, which handles Medicare and Medicaid, would eliminate state funding to the agency entirely.

The legislature making the choices increased its Republican majorities in the recent midterm election. Republicans currently hold a 101-49 supermajority in the state House, a majority in the state Senate and Mr. Perry has appointed the senior leadership in every state agency.

The governor has promised there will be no new taxes, and other lawmakers know that pledge is a winning strategy in Texas. Mr. Perry won an unprecedented third term in November, and anti-spending tea party activists helped win Republicans their first supermajority since Reconstruction by espousing libertarian values.

Texas is also a place where the constitution forbids both a budget deficit and an income tax, limiting what lawmakers can actually do. But that doesn’t mean voters don’t want any state assistance for the young and needy.

In a poll by Texas’ five major newspapers released Sunday, registered voters said they opposed any new taxes, but also opposed any cuts to public education or health spending.

“No one should govern on their rhetoric because that’s how you get really bad public policy,” Mr. Coleman argued. “There are 101 Republicans, and if 101 Republicans want to slash and burn, that’s what they will do.”

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