The current Texas Legislature faces one of the greatest challenges of our time. It is required, not only to balance a budget while looking at a 27-billion dollar plus deficit; it is faced with the real challenge of picking and choosing what programs are essential to the future of Texas and its unborn children. Admittedly, I have been somewhat critical of our Texas Legislature and statewide leadership. I do believe one should not be critical without offering constructive suggestions; in that spirit, I offer the following.
In balancing the budget, education, both public and higher, should remain sacred. For many years Texas has struggled to maintain a position at least better than Mississippi and developing nations of the world. We have maintained a passable education system because of higher tuition and local taxpayers’ willingness to sacrifice. Any cuts in funding our colleges and universities or public education will exacerbate our state’s efforts to educate our children. It will also dramatically hamper efforts of pulling ourselves to the top in educational excellence. At present, we are near the bottom.
Use the rainy day fund. We have put aside almost $10-billion which many of our conservative leaders say they want to continue to preserve. Not spending this money to help balance our budget with “no new taxes” makes as much sense as a family with a large savings account standing by and allowing their house to be foreclosed
Do away with duplicate or unnecessary state agencies. The Railroad Commission has long sense outlived its usefulness and should be immediately merged with the Public Utility Commission. Not only would it save several million dollars, it would allow the people of Texas to truly understand what state agency has a serious effect on your home utility bills. Texas is one of the few states, if not the only state, to have two supreme courts. We have a Supreme Court and a Court of Criminal Appeals. By giving the Texas Supreme Court jurisdiction over appellate criminal cases, we could do away with an entire court and its staff. Millions would be saved. There is no special reason the same judges could not judge the criminal law as well as the civil law in this state. It is already being done by all of our Courts of Appeal throughout the state
Overhaul the criminal justice system. Meanness and enforcement of criminal laws may sound good for politicians who want to talk tough, but it is not nearly as effective as a modern criminal justice system where we substitute oversight of minor criminals to incarceration. We are spending almost as much tax money keeping a young person locked up as we do sending them to medical school. States which have de-emphasized incarceration and emphasized supervision have seen dramatic decreases in their crime rate. Even Texas, since the 1995 overhaul, has seen a significant reduction in crime. A well-funded probation/parole system will be more productive and cost only a fraction of what it cost to keep people in cages. Of course, we must reserve our prison beds and cells for those who are dangerous and cannot be trusted to respond to supervision or assistance in getting back on the road to good citizenship.
Preventative health should become a mantra of the Legislature instead of continuing to pay more and more for things such as kidney dialysis and blindness caused by diabetes. Our current system seldom addresses prevention. For example, it is well known that over 50% of the debilitating effects of diabetes can be controlled by life style changes. But Texas offers almost no attention for screening for such diseases, counseling or assistance in altering lifestyles to avoid blindness, kidney failure or amputations. Changing this can save billions, not only to the state, but can relieve untold suffering of Texas families.
Let the managers manage. In productive and well-run businesses, owners generally allow great leeway for their managers to determine how many workers each task needs and what they should pay. Currently, if a state agency needs to reduce its force, or if its workforce is reduced by natural attrition such as retirement, the worker is simply replaced without regard to whether or not additional pay could be an incentive to the remaining workers to take up the slack. In most situations it has been proven that where there is a crew doing a certain job and one leaves, for less than the cost of the departing worker, slight increases in pay to the remaining workers could accomplish the same task with fewer employees. Managers of state departments do not enjoy this luxury because of quirks in our appropriations process.
Encourage departments to be more efficient and reward them for doing so. The same quirky provisions in our state’s appropriations process makes it impossible to reward a state institution such as Lamar University for efficiency. For example, currently if Lamar receives an appropriation for campus maintenance, and it figures out a way to do it more efficiently and at the end of year has a sizeable surplus, it is rewarded by being allowed to watch the Legislature take the surplus and spend it elsewhere. The state should encourage innovation, thriftiness, good will and more efficiency and allow agencies such as Lamar to keep, from year to year, what they saved. The agencies then would not have to ask the Legislature for as much special funding.
No new taxes should include “no new taxes” for local government. Almost every Session for the last ten has helped maintain the statewide boast of politicians that they completed the Session with “no new taxes.” Unfortunately, too often the load has simply been shifted from the state to local school boards, county commissioners and city councils. Our statewide politicians should quit condemning and damning that dirty federal money and make full use of every available federally funded program which would help Texas pull out of the hole. Stop the rhetoric, take the money.
The Legislature should search, not only for waste, but for unfair tax breaks. They are abundant in little special cubbyholes, generally for undeserving corporations which want to avoid taxes.
The governor’s slush fund of over $300-million that he has doled out to his political supporters should be abolished. The $300-million should go towards reducing our deficit.
I urge the voters of Southeast Texas to pay attention to what happens in Austin in the next 140 days. It is important not only to you, but particularly to your grandchildren.