AUSTIN — A proposal to handle the state’s immediate problem — insufficient revenue to meet current obligations — emerged from the Capitol last week.
Gov. Rick Perry’s office on March 15 announced that Gov. Perry, House Speaker Joe Straus and Comptroller Susan Combs now agree to close out fiscal year 2011 by taking these actions:
• Moving forward with $800 million in spending cuts, plus using:
• $300 million from increased sales tax collections over the last few months, plus using:
• A one-time draw not to exceed $3.2 billion from the state’s $9.4 billion Economic Stabilization Fund, widely referred to as the "Rainy Day" fund.
Of course, debates and votes on this proposal would need to take place at committee level and then by the full House and Senate.
Now Perry, to emphasize that budget writers won’t be able to turn right around and dip into the fund for an instant replay, said he remains "steadfastly committed to protecting the remaining balance" of the fund and will not sign a 2012-2013 state budget that uses the fund. (That budget has a projected revenue deficit of $27 billion.)
Speaker Straus, said, "Now that most agencies have made substantial cuts from their current budgets, using part of the Rainy Day Fund to pay for the rest of our bills — even as we continue to look for more savings — is the conservative and fiscally responsible way to meet our constitutional duty to balance the budget.
"The Rainy Day Fund was created to help manage just such unexpected declines in state revenue. We will do so while preserving more than $6 billion in the fund to cover unexpected emergencies in the future," Straus said.
And Combs said, "Sales tax revenue has done well in recent months because of increased business and consumer activity, which will help close the 2011 deficit. And as I mentioned in recent testimony, it is also important to keep the state’s future budget needs in mind in our decision making of today."
By resolving the current shortfall, Texas leaders can focus on completing the 2012-2013 budget without raising taxes, Perry’s office said.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, applauded recent budget-cutting efforts by the House Appropriations Committee and said he has asked the Senate Finance Committee to reduce state spending up to $10 billion in 2012-2013 without raising taxes.
And, on March 17, Dewhurst announced the formation of a new Senate Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters "to find up to $5 billion in savings and non-tax revenue to balance the budget." The panel will be chaired by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.
Education funding cuts proposed
The budget-writing House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee have been working on ways to cut the biggest slice of the state budget pie: education.
The Senate panel’s proposal would cut about $4 billion from current levels while the House panel is proposing some $8 billion in education cuts.
Among many cost-reducing suggestions on the table are increasing the student-teacher ratio, layoffs, unpaid furloughs, discontinuation of various administrative reports and the limiting of high-stakes testing.
Vehicle screening system begins
The Texas Department of Public Safety on March 15 announced it is equipping five of its truck inspection facilities at three separate locations with new commercial vehicle safety technology starting this summer.
"PrePass," the new technology, enables qualified commercial trucks equipped with transponders to be screened at designated weigh stations. Cleared vehicles can then bypass the inspection facility while traveling at highway speed, according to an agency news release.
DPS Director Steve McCraw said, "By screening commercial vehicles at highway speeds for compliance with Texas safety and credential requirements, we can help our troopers and inspectors focus on those commercial vehicles most in need of inspections."
GOP sets 10th Amendment bills
House Concurrent Resolution 50 was voted favorably from the House Select Committee on State Sovereignty on March 11. There is an identical Senate version, SCR 14. Both resolutions assert a "states’ rights" philosophy, which pushes back against federal mandates, such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010.
According to the governor’s office, "the resolutions claim sovereignty for Texas under the 10th Amendment, and assert that the 10th Amendment limits the scope of federal power to the powers specifically granted by the U.S. Constitution."