(More on Rick Perry's state budget mess. - promoted by Phillip Martin)
Somehow, about three months ago, I won a roughly 31-year, um, "discussion" with Liz and bought myself a motorcycle.
I'm not sure precisely how I prevailed. I sort of feel like I'm missing something. She may have secretly bought some extra life insurance on me and sees herself winning either way.
Even though I haven't ridden since high school, I took the required safety course and got my license. In fact, I missed just three on the test – and I believe the state is totally wrong about one that they say I missed.
I'm having lots of fun, and I've learned a lot that I think actually makes me a better car driver. For example, I follow what are called the "two, four and 12 second rules." As in:
-- Always keep at least a two-second following distance between you and the vehicle in front of you.
-- Be sure you have at least four seconds to react in case something unexpected invades your immediate path.
-- And always scan everything in your anticipated path, using a 12-second count, so you know everything you can about the road, weather and traffic.
In other words, don't ride that motorcycle blindly. Evaluate all the information you have so that you are prepared and making good decisions.
(Arguably the most significant rule I've learned, though, is to always either wear a jacket or tuck in my shirt if I'm riding at highway speeds. I recently was on Highway 290 in an untucked shirt. Before I knew it, the wind had caused the shirt to ride up to just below my "pecs," leaving most of my upper torso exposed. I was all out there. Let's just say that I'm not the "Fat Boy" people are supposed to think of when it comes to motorcycles.)
Writing and Riding
Last Wednesday, Sept. 1, was the first day of the state’s Fiscal Year 2011. And since our budgets run two years at a time (September 1 to August 31), we’re now just past halfway through the 2010-11 budget that the legislature approved way back in May 2009.
I celebrated the new year without champagne, although I admit to wanting a drink. Instead, I sent a letter to get some very important information about Texas’ finances and fiscal shape.
Think of it as a search to see whether the state is following basic common sense – the equivalent of two, four and 12-second rules for budget writing. We need to know our budget road conditions.
After all, we're riding (or writing) in the context of a state government enterprise doing more than $90 billion a year in business. Around $182 billion each biennium.
The economy is about as unstable and insecure as any of us have ever seen.
And you can hardly read anything about state government without some expert talking about how tough the next couple of years are going to be on the budget.
In other words, we're facing some dangerous, rough terrain with lots of things coming at us and unexpectedly moving around us.
And we really, really, seriously need to not crash.
Happy Fiscal New Year (except for the "Happy" part)
So I rang in the fiscal new year requesting that the Texas Comptroller (the state’s elected Chief Financial Officer) provide some details about the revenue shortfall we’re likely to face in this current budget and the structural deficit that seems all-but-certain in 2012-13. (You can download my letter by clicking here.)
Specifically, I requested an update on the revenue picture for the current budget. I also noted my belief that it’s the Comptroller’s legal duty to provide this update, given the Texas Constitution’s requirement that updated revenue information “shall be submitted ... at such other times as may be necessary to show probable changes” to the last revenue estimate.
(By the way, the Comptroller hasn’t provided an official revenue estimate like this since ... wait for it ... January of 2009, a few months before the current budget was passed. I mean, a lot has changed since then, hasn’t it? Has your financial picture changed since Eli Manning was a reigning Super Bowl champion?)
I noted in the letter that a lot of information has already been provided to bond rating agencies – and some of this information seems to actually contradict reports to taxpayers and voters about the state of Texas’ finances.
And I recommended that the Comptroller go the extra mile to provide information indicating how bad the budget is likely to be in 2012-13 – which might actually turn some of this speculation about the size of the problem into action in trying to fix it.
Specifically, I requested a straightforward financial forecast, plus basic reports on:
-- Texas’ debt situation,
-- The failure of the legislature’s 2006 tax shift to cover the state’s obligations,
-- The status of what’s known as the Rainy Day Fund (one of the state’s main savings accounts),
-- And the status of the billions of dollars in special funds that are dedicated for specific purposes but instead diverted in ways that allow the legislature to spend more money.
Tell us something we don’t know
The thing is, all of us – legislators and taxpayers – need more information about what's in our anticipated path.
All summer, there have been wildly divergent projections of how big a deficit there will be in the 2012-13 budget – the low end has been around $10 billion or $11 billion, and the high end has been around $18 billion.
(By the way, that roughly $8 billion difference, by itself, would cover nearly all of the huge budget shortfall that Texas faced in 2003, which many have cited as precedent for what the state will face in 2012-13.)
But whichever 11-figure number anyone picks, we all know we’re facing a gigantic potential deficit in the next budget. And it would be a tremendous mistake for those in control of the budget handlebars to put off the issue for yet another four months – and then try to solve this problem in just the same 4-and-a-half month legislative session we always have.
Furthermore, as I noted in the letter, significant budget cuts are already underway across state government. Yet those cuts are being ordered, proposed, and implemented without information showing the state’s current budget and fiscal situation.
That’s what some folks might call “riding blind.”
It’s all about accountability
The truth is that for a long time, I’ve been frustrated about the lack of accountability when it comes to the budget.
Last year, I authored a package of bills designed to make the budget more open and honest.
Also, as I said earlier this year, I simply will not support new or higher taxes, new or higher fees, or a raid on our state’s savings accounts during the next session – because right now, the budget is being balanced through an embarrassing mix of debt, diversions, and delays, and I just don’t think anyone can assure you that your money will pay for what you’ve been told it will.
But one of the most frustrating things I’ve seen yet is the failure, or even refusal, of those in control of our state and its budget to provide information that might help us prepare for this challenge that we all know is coming and that so many folks are deeply concerned about.
The thing is, information is good. People like it. People appreciate it. And particularly on something as fundamental as the budget, the only thing information might damage is someone’s ability to deny the reality we’re facing.
It ain't like me riding a motorcycle with my belly exposed. Exposure, in this case, is good.
Now, I completely expect some well-meaning budget writer to pull me aside at some point, put an arm on my shoulder, and tell me ever-so-patiently that they’re just doing things the way they always have – and that folks like me, who want this kind of basic information, just don’t understand the way the budget gets written in Texas.
You know what? They’re probably right.
And that’s entirely the problem.