The Legislative Session's Low Moment

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Every session has its ups and downs, its highs and lows.

This session is no different, though the lowest point seems to have arrived early this session. It usually comes later – after short-sighted behavior, ridiculous lack of discipline, and terrible (albeit easily foreseen) outcomes.

This low point is my new high: I’m officially back to being fat.

I usually put on some serious pounds during a session. But I’ve porked up much earlier this year than ever before.

This is a session of firsts: the first time my pants have been let out before March; the first time I’ve eaten a sleeve of cookies by declaring to myself that “I deserve these” before I’ve even passed a bill out of the Senate; the first time I’ve stood behind my desk chair for a picture with a page to hide my belly (and the strained button on my coat); and the first time I’ve methodically eaten a box of beef jerky in an afternoon while telling myself it was okay since jerky has no carbs.

I’m way up, which means I’m sort of down.

A big fat falsehood

One of my biggest priorities remains ending the diversion of money that you pay for specific things like clean air, trauma care, or state parks, but that’s used instead to pay for other budget items.

I’ve written repeatedly about the dishonesty of this practice. I’ve worked session-after-session to curtail it. And I’ve even filed a proposed constitutional amendment this session to end this process with a big dose of openness and accountability.

My amendment does four things that I believe are essential to ending diversions:

  • It puts this vital decision in the hands of Texans by allowing them to vote on the amendment.
  • It enshrines these limits in the state constitution so future legislatures can’t simply write around them with a bill.
  • It creates a responsible “glide-path” that gives the legislature more than six years to end this practice.
  • It allows disciplined discretion that permits a supermajority of the House of Representatives and Senate to redirect this money, but only in the most open and transparent way possible.

I’m very proud of this legislation, but it’s not like my ideas were handed to me on a stone tablet. I’ll work with anyone, from either party, who’s willing to stop playing games and get serious about acknowledging this deep honesty deficit and what it will take to close it.

It’s time to get real

The problem, I guess, is that old habits die hard, and this is one of the oldest bad habits in the state budget. As I’ve said repeatedly, the budget is balanced with a toxic mix of debt, diversions, deception and denial, and it’s not clear that everyone’s willing to throw out those rotten crutches.

In 2001, the state diverted about $1.6 billion in dedicated funds. For the current budget, the total is about $4.95 billion, an increase of more than 200 percent. The state now diverts nearly as much in parks fees, clean air charges, utility bill surcharges and other fees as it collects in business taxes.

That $4.95 billion represents years of broken promises to Texans and spells out the size of the state’s honesty deficit. You simply can’t address this issue without at least coming up with a plan to pay down that debt or creating a mechanism to prevent budget writers from diving back into these diversions in the future.

New normal

That $4.95 billion total is a 10-figure indicator of how badly those in control of the budget have allowed this reliance on diversions to get. This isn’t a matter of just letting bygones be bygones. The legislature has to reckon with its past actions. It’s not enough to say, “We won’t let it grow any more than this.” That’s the equivalent of saying the system is too broken to fix.

It also isn’t possible to fix this deception without constitutional language ending it and a plan for paying back this debt.

Some may claim this measure of responsibility is too hard to live up to. They say they need discretion to write the budget. But “discretion,” and the abuse of it, created this problem, deep distrust among Texans, and distaste for these diversions and broken promises.

So those in control can’t simply say, “Trust us; we mean it this time.” How can anyone believe that this practice will end for more than a session or two without a constitutional provision short-circuiting it?

Besides, approaches like mine still allow some flexibility. Legislators could redirect dedicated funds with a two-thirds vote. They’d simply have to do it in the light of day, declaring fund-by-fund what they were doing and explaining why to their constituents.

That’s what I call “disciplined discretion.” It offers a real change, not just more promises. It allows taxpayers to trust the state by verifying that the legislature’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And it requires those in control to be honest about how they’re using taxpayer dollars while still allowing them to do what they need to do to balance the budget.

These diversions have been going on for more than 20 years. They now total billions of dollars. I think Texans will be willing to trust the state with this money again, but the state is going to have to earn it.

 

 

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