More Budget Cuts Coming for State Agencies

By: The Statesman
By: The Statesman

State agencies will be told to cut up to 3 percent more from their current budgets, legislative leaders said Monday.

And some of the areas that got a partial reprieve from 5 percent budget cuts earlier this year, such as criminal justice, might not be so lucky this time around.

"We will be making cuts in the next session, but every dollar we cut now makes that process a little bit smoother," said House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

Leaders from both sides of the Capitol who make up the Legislative Budget Board, including Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, met on Monday to set the spending limit for the next two-year budget and announced the additional budget cuts.

Earlier Monday, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, amped up his calls for reforming the budget process and sharply criticized the state's Republican leadership.

"For years, those in control have balanced the budget with a combination of debt, diversions and deception," Watson said, adding that he intends to push for changes that will make the budget process more public and more honest.

Straus said tax revenue for the current two-year budget, which ends next August, could come in about $4 billion short of estimates. It was an official acknowledgment of a number that has been floating around the Capitol for months and is part of the unofficial shortfall projection of $24 billion.

Earlier this year, lawmakers called for agencies to reduce their spending from the $87 billion general fund by 5 percent. In addition, budget leaders have asked state agencies to plan for another 10 percent reduction in their 2012-13 budgets. The approved cuts from earlier this year, together with the agencies' proposals to reduce spending by 10 percent in the next budget, would produce $4.2 billion in savings.

It is unclear how much an additional cut of 2 to 3 percent would save.

The 5 percent cuts produced only $1.2 billion in savings in the 2010-11 budget because certain areas were wholly exempt, including direct aid to school districts. Other cuts were deemed politically unacceptable, such as axing millions from college financial aid and laying off 3,000 prison workers.

The legislative leaders Monday provided no assurance that those areas of the budget will continue to be protected. They will decide by the end of the month how much agencies will need to trim.

The legislators say they are committed to closing the state's budget hole without increasing taxes, which will require much deeper cuts next year.

Watson, during a morning speech to business and civic groups at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, said he intends to seek a change in Senate rules to require that a final version of the state budget — usually approved in the final days of the 140-day legislative session — be made public no less than five days before it can be voted upon.

He said he also wants to end unfunded mandates, to prevent legislators from passing bills if there's no money to pay for new programs and to require the Legislative Budget Board and comptroller to monitor budget issues in a more public way.

Watson called for the creation of a special "blue-ribbon committee" of outside experts to study Texas' budgeting process and revenue laws and recommend changes.

"We need to rebuild our budget from scratch, from the ground up," he said.

During the previous legislative session, Watson championed a series of budget reforms, most of which did not pass. And while he acknowledged he has voted for previous state budgets, even though he had growing concerns, the senator said he will not do so this time.

"I'll support none of it without meaningful reforms," he said, adding that he will also vote against using "any or all of the Rainy Day Fund" — the state's savings account for emergencies.

Though Watson declined to criticize any of the Republican leadership by name, he urged voters to watch the budgeting process closely and hold their elected representatives accountable at the ballot box.

"This government — our government — has failed us," he said. "It's been irresponsible with our money, less than candid in its accounting of it, and grossly undisciplined in its empty promises of something-for-nothing."

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