I told you last week about a letter I wrote on the budget – and some basic fiscal information that I'm having a surprisingly hard time getting.
Now, this is important stuff. It’s information we absolutely should have so we can get started working on what’s sure to be a tough, tough budget next year.
But, to be honest, it's a little ... well, dry. So I assumed that a lot of folks just wouldn't pay much attention.
Well, a reporter asked the Governor about the letter, and he responded, "It sounds like a Bih-Zaar request."
Bih-Zaar, of course, is the stage name that the Governor's been encouraging me to take. I guess he thinks that if folks equate budget accountability with Top 40 radio, then more people will pay attention to this issue.
I wouldn't have thought it would work, frankly. But, sure enough, after he announced the request came from Bih-Zaar, it was in the newspapers all week. So I guess I owe him one.
Now, some folks were confused and thought he said "bizarre." Easy mistake to make.
But I know better. Because, I mean, he wouldn't have been rapping a straightforward, substantive request for basic budget information in the midst of what he calls "a major financial crisis," right?
He wouldn't be dissing a request that Texas government be open and accountable to the taxpayers, right?
And he surely wouldn't be blowing off the most basic sort of financial information that so many worried Texas families and businesses themselves are poring over right now ...
The REAL news out of last week
All kidding aside, suffice it to say that I really didn’t expect that letter to make as much news as it did last week. But I’m glad it did – we’ve seen a good, overdue conversation about the budget over the last few days, and it’ll continue as this information I’ve requested starts to surface.
I’ve compiled several of the stories about the letter – and the budget-related news that came out of it – in the newsroom at my web site. Click here to get there.
But more than any of that, let’s all step back and focus on a couple of things that might have gotten lost in the politics, knee-jerk rhetoric, and trash talk that went on last week:
1. The language in the Texas Constitution sure seems plain and pretty easy to understand: supplemental revenue statements “shall be submitted ... at other such times as may be necessary to show probable changes” to the estimate on which our current budget was written – an estimate that was released almost two years ago.
If those in control of our budget and our government believe that, given all we know about Texas’ increasingly troubled finances, this provision doesn’t require the Comptroller (the state's elected Chief Financial Officer) to provide a supplemental revenue estimate, then they owe it to the people of Texas to explain their interpretation of that language.
After all, even with the bobbing, weaving, and dancing around that we're seeing right now, we know these sorts of statements have been issued in the past. In fact, back in 1986, when the bottom fell out of the oil industry and gutted the state’s economy, then-Comptroller Bob Bullock twice revised his revenue estimate so Texans and their elected officials could ALL know what they were facing. So there’s precedent, and it’s a good one to follow.
2. Texans are getting very mixed messages about what we’re facing. On one hand, the Comptroller is still saying she doesn’t plan to provide this update I seek on the state’s fiscal situation.
Yet she already has alerted Wall Street to huge changes in state revenue from what the budget was built on – only she’s done it rather quietly and extremely technically.
That said, the pool of money known as General Revenue – which helps pay for our schools, colleges, and most basic state government services – appears to have closed out the fiscal year at least a couple billion dollars in the red (according to projections given last month to bond rating agencies).
That overdrawn account was most likely covered by balances in funds that were created specifically to clean up our air, improve trauma care, lower utility bills, fix up our parks, and pay for other specific services that are important to taxpayers. We all need to know the true status of these specifically dedicated funds, and whether the money that people think is there for these critical missions actually is there.
Our troubles are snowballing. As I noted in the letter, the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee – who’s in a position to know these things – has said the current 2010-11 budget may end up as much as $4.5 billion in the red. That deficit could require the legislature to pour billions of dollars back into this year’s budget simply to make it through 2011.
And it's now said that the full budget shortfall facing the legislature may be as much as $20 billion ... or even more.
It’s unfathomable to me that the legislature will convene in four months facing this breathtaking problem, which will afflict both the current budget and the next one, and the state won’t be transparent enough – right now – to turn over this most basic information so we can stop trying to guess what the problem is and start really working to try to solve it.
In dodging this issue, the Governor said that we don't need updated numbers when "somebody pokes their head up out of a hole and asks for them." Well, it's a pretty deep hole. And it may be deeper than we think.
(By the way, I'm not sure I'm tall enough to poke my head out of a hole that's $20 billion deep.)
Less talk, more info
We're seeing an aggressive refusal to provide basic budget information.
But here’s the deal: people can say whatever they want in an obvious attempt to demean my request. But that doesn’t answer anything.
It doesn’t provide any information about this disaster we know is coming. It fails to provide any reasonable explanation – one based on good financial or business practices – of why it makes sense to not provide this information.
And it does nothing – nothing at all – to help us solve this problem.
Since I was elected to the Senate, I've been proud to be a strong advocate for demanding budget accountability. This is an issue that unites all taxpayers and all Texans.
It isn't about politics. It's the right thing to do – to do the budget right.
And the only thing that’s “bizarre” about any of this is the reluctance to provide basic information and accountable government at a time when we know we're facing an unstable financial condition.
It's that simple.