Monday, May 11, 2015

Limping into the 21st century...

Everyone knows it would be difficult, if not impossible, to win a Nascar race in a horse and buggy. Unfortunately, many of our leadership in Texas think it’s worth a try.

We operate under a constitution designed in the 1870's. Most of the legislators back then traveled from broadly diverse parts of Texas as far as El Paso by horseback or horse and buggy. There were no telephones, televisions, or twitter and very few paved roads. Our outmoded constitution requires that legislators work virtually for free ($600 a month). They are expected to write a budget in 140 days which will accommodate the needs of our state for two full years. 

In the 1870's our budget was a small fraction of what it is now, and federal funds stemming from Washington, D.C. were unheard of as a part of our state’s budget.

While no business would try to run its financial affairs by budgeting two years at a time, Texas tries. Without adequate opportunity to make adjustments, changes or accommodate special needs,  we are in constant crisis mode. The only bill which must be passed in order for the state to continue to operate is the appropriations bill which, it seems, always comes late in the Session.

The appropriations bill must be passed by both houses and signed by the governor--and additionally must be certified by our state comptroller, Glenn Hager--as being within the boundaries of expected revenue to come in the coming two fiscal years. This year, Hager's estimate is higher than usual but is not being used wisely.

Recently, our state comptroller issued a cautionary note to the Legislature pointing out that--in this era of searching for $4.5 billion dollars worth of tax cuts--our future could be imperiled by lack of attention to several things. Among those items he listed were a retirement fund for teachers, a state employee pension system, health care, and transportation. Unmentioned were critical issues involving water, declining state facilities which are in bad need of repair, and our public education funding. While Hager was, in my opinion, doing his duty with this warning, he failed to have the courage to tell our leadership that these serious issues should be handled before we start giving back tax money. 

One Legislative quirk has to do with why the spending bill always sits until near the end of the Session before it achieves passage. First, all those who do the appropriations want to make sure they have every penny available to design their spending plan. The other motive is somewhat ulterior in that there is a rule in both the House and Senate prohibiting the passage of any measure which calls for expenditure of state dollars until after the appropriations bill has been passed. This leaves a lot of dead bills on the junk pile at the end of the Session. Another quirk about the Legislature is it seems no Session passes without some controversy between the House and the Senate about who is killing whose bills. This also causes many measures, some good, some bad, to remain un-passed.

The reason I say it is difficult to win a serious race in a horse and buggy in modern times is that, only meeting every other year, plus limiting the days and refusing to address a budget every year, makes it difficult for the Texas Legislature to take into consideration declining or new needs of the state, new sources of revenue, and a sensible budget that fits the time. 

Another false hope is that the State of Texas can operate on a tax system created 50 or more years in the past. The old mantra of no new taxes or giving tax breaks every session causes fear among politicians about even discussing taxes. Lack of discussion means lack of consideration. Therefore, I fear our state will limp into the twenty-first century with a system of taxes that is not only unfair but is also not up to the task of making Texas a modern, forward-thrusting engine for economic prosperity.

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