Howard: Are we there yet? Fueling our drive to the future

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Note: The legislative session under the pink dome started last Tuesday, and our “quick-working” legislative body is getting all of its gears in motion as our elected officials attempt to tackle our state's many problems. Before the beginning festivities on Tuesday, Austin's Donna Howard penned her thoughts on the challenges the lie ahead.

Many of us traveled to see our families during the recent holidays, filling our tanks with enough gas to get to Grandma's or plotting options to get more fuel along the way. Only making it to Waco when Grandma lives in Dallas just wouldn't do, so we budgeted accordingly.

Unlike a family trip, the state budgets as if our destination can be reached with one tank of gas regardless of the distance. And this is keeping us farther and farther from where we need to be.

When the Texas Legislature convened in January 2011, it faced a massive budget shortfall brought on by a struggling economy. The Republican majority willfully made calamitous cuts to state spending, including a $5.4 billion reduction in education funding. They also chose to create a budget riddled with IOUs and accounting tricks rather than tap into the Economic Stabilization Fund, leaving $6 billion unused while ignoring Texas' transportation, water, education and health needs.

Things will be different when legislators return Tuesday. The state's economy has rebounded, our unemployment rate is the lowest in four years, and sales tax receipts have been growing monthly. Our general revenue fund will have several billion in surplus dollars, and the Economic Stabilization Fund, or rainy day fund, could reach $10 billion.

Though legislators will not face the hard choices of two years ago, decisions will have to be made about paying our IOUs, restoring funds that were cut last session, and meeting the needs of our expanding population. While our current economic outlook is much brighter, we must acknowledge our history of neglect and begin to lay the groundwork for future growth and prosperity.

In a recent hearing, the state's Select Committee on Economic Development – which includes business leaders and elected officials – was told that a failure to invest in infrastructure will soon begin to impede our competitiveness. Testimony also highlighted the low percentage of Texans with post-secondary degrees and our declining ability to provide a skilled workforce.

And though the recent report from the State Budget Crisis Task Force praises Texas for its conservative fiscal management, it also warns that we need a long-term financial planning process focusing beyond our normal two-year budget cycle so that we actually confront the issues that will shape our future rather than camouflaging and deferring necessary investments.

The Legislature is constitutionally required to limit increases in budget appropriations to personal income growth. Some state officials are arguing that we should instead set the limit at an even lower cap of simple population growth plus inflation – despite the fact that the current limit hasn't even been sufficient to maintain the status quo. Rather than succumb to ideological rhetoric to further constrain our budget, we should take advantage of our bullish fiscal condition and responsibly invest in our future, as any growing business would do in a similar situation.

I'm encouraged by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus' commitment to funding school enrollment growth and by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's recommendation to use the rainy day for a water infrastructure fund. And I'm glad that the Texas Association of Business is proposing revenue options for investments in transportation.

We know where we need to be headed – toward an educated and healthy citizenry, a skilled workforce, a flexible economy, an efficient transportation infrastructure, and a sustainable supply of our natural resources. This requires not just a single tank of gas, but a serious and responsible commitment of the fuel needed to drive our economy forward.

I believe we have the resources for the journey, and I am eager to work with my colleagues in the coming months to ensure we arrive at our destination.

State Representative Donna Howard is one of six representing Travis County residents. She's a Democrat who was first elected in a special election in 2006.

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