We're ALL Popeye the Sailor Man …

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Some political commentary is just timeless.

I’m talking, of course, about the cartoon Popeye.

Think about the plot of what I recall to be just about any episode (and I say this not having seen an episode of Popeye in about 50 years; that’s how timeless it is): Things are bad in … whatever town it is that Popeye lives in. He’s getting beat up and/or neglected, and things are looking pretty well hopeless. Then some spinach appears, often in a can, often falling out of his shirt – and yes, it’s totally appropriate to ask why he didn’t know there was a can of spinach inside his shirt that whole time. Popeye eats it, and order is restored.

There are several lessons here: Disorder and tribulation are bad. People should strive to do better. And doing better is a whole lot easier when a can full of green stuff falls out of your shirt.

Fight to the finish when you eat your spinach

Last week, a metaphorical can of spinach fell out of the state’s metaphorical shirt. The Comptroller revealed her estimate of the state’s revenue for the current budget (covering 2012 and ’13) and the next one (for 2014 and ’15).

The numbers were staggering. The current budget will end up with $8.8 billion more than had been expected when it was passed in 2011. And the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which is basically a savings account, is expected to swell to $11.8 billion by the end of the next budget cycle.

If you’re a teacher who’s been laid off – or who’s avoided being laid off by foregoing a raise and adding a couple more kids to an already crowded classroom – feel free to be a little indignant right now.

For the rest of us, let’s try to set aside the fact that the Comptroller’s revenue forecast was off by ALMOST $9,000,000,000 two years ago. Or the fact that had that colossal error been less egregious, the legislature could have come together and avoided many or even most of 2011’s education cuts – the first time in memory that the state cut funding for enrollment growth in our schools.

Now, there’s only one real question: are we going to make things better, fix what’s broken, and undo the damage that’s been inflicted on Texans (especially our youngest ones)? Or are those in control of the Capitol going to just shut their eyes and hope things work out?

We need a better budget

We got an early answer to that question yesterday, and it wasn't encouraging.

Read more below the jump.

Budget writers in the Senate laid out an initial draft budget that wouldn't even try to fix what's been broken when it comes to basic necessities such as schools, transportation networks and health care for Texas children, seniors and women.

It would fail to restore the $5.4 billion that was short-sightedly cut from schools in 2011, and instead would lean even harder on homeowners and property taxpayers to replace state funding.

One redeeming quality is that this budget, unlike years and years of earlier versions, would rely less on the diversion of money that's supposed to be dedicated for specific purposes such as parks, hospitals and clean air, but that isn't used for those purposes. Ending these diversions has been a priority of mine since I was elected to the Senate, and I'm glad to see budget writers and others responding.

But there's still a deceptive gimmick to intentionally underestimate the state's Medicaid responsibilities, and I suspect there will be more examples of debt, diversions and deception that come to light in the coming weeks.

Texas can do better than that, especially with the resources we now know we have.

Texas can do better

As I said in a statement last week, the state's thriving economy speaks very well of the entrepreneurs, business owners and workers who are fueling it.

But as much as politicians want to take credit for others’ success, it doesn’t speak well of the Texas budget, those in control of it or the decisions that shaped it.

There are a few basic things that a typical business person needs government not to screw up – the schools have to be strong enough to attract parents and train future workers; the health care has to be able to keep workers and their kids healthy; the roads and transportation networks have to be good enough to move people and products around; everybody’s got to be able to trust the water supply; etc.

In all of these areas, Texas can do much better than it's been doing. At some point, those in control of the Capitol will run out of tricks and diversions covering up the problems they’ve created.

So as we begin this year's budget debate, and especially as you hear budget writers talk of tightening belts while bragging about an alleged “surplus,” it’ll be helpful if you remember a few things:

  • If your state isn’t paying its bills, you don’t have a surplus.
  • If your state ranks near the bottom in vital necessities like education funding and health care, you don’t have a surplus.
  • If most of your state’s school districts are suing you over an inadequate and inequitable school finance system, you don’t have a surplus.
  • And if there’s an honesty deficit in the way your state balances its books, you don’t have a surplus.

We now know, without question, that Texas could have done better by its kids, parents, employers and its future in 2011. Now that we know we have the resources, there should be no more excuses.

It’s time for Texas to do better.


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