Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A stricter version of conservatism takes root

A stricter version of conservatism takes root

The 2011 legislative session is nearing its end, and the Republican-controlled body has struggled at times to find consensus on fixing the state's budget shortfall.

An important reason why a consensus has not been reached is that once-feasible options for fixing the budget have lost favor.

I've talked before in this space about the rainy day fund, a $9 billion pot of money raised through oil and gas taxes. The Republican-majority Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry nearly emptied that fund to help fix a smaller budget shortfall in 2003. In 2005, Perry called for using it again to create the Emerging Technology Fund, which invests state dollars in startup technology companies and awards research grants to universities.

But this year, despite the fact that the fund contains billions more than it did in either of those years, and despite the fact that schools and other services face sizable spending cuts, Perry has said that the fund should not be used to balance the budget over the next two years.

Many lawmakers agree with him, which is why the House approved a budget that did not spend that money over the next two years and the Senate tried to do the same.

Also in 2003, the Legislature balanced the budget with deferrals, which allow lawmakers to shift payments to school districts or state agencies from the final days of one budget cycle into the first few days of the next cycle. Spending isn't actually reduced so much as it is pushed to the next balance sheet. This maneuver allowed the 2003 Legislature, for instance, to delay an $800 million education payment, which the 2005 Legislature came back and repaid after the economy had improved.

Legislative leaders have proposed another education deferral this time. But several House conservatives have expressed concerns about supporting it, saying the state should not push costs to the next budget cycle.

The 2003 Legislature also used other tools, such as entering a multistate lottery and putting a fee on facilities for people with developmental disabilities, that don't seem to have much traction this time around.

So as the budget shortfall has grown larger, members of the Legislature seem to be adopting an increasingly strict definition of what it means to be a conservative. For this we can thank a number of factors, including the rise of the tea party and its successes in last November's elections, as well as the increasing prominence of interest groups such as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, whose lawmaker scorecards can come quite in handy during a Republican primary.

Talmadge Heflin, the Republican chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee in 2003, is now the director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the small-government Texas Public Policy Foundation. The foundation isn't crazy about using the rainy day money over the next two years or deferring payments.

"We see a more dismal outlook for the national economy" than at this point in 2003, Heflin said, adding that he and colleagues also worry about how national health care reform will affect state Medicaid costs in coming years.

A hard-line approach against tricks that were more politically palatable in the past could force the Legislature to make spending cuts that are even more drastic.

Previous lawmakers were willing to use the rainy day fund and deferred payments to make spending cuts less severe. But that was before the tea party, before Perry rode an anti-spending wave to a GOP primary win and before most of us had heard of Barack Obama.

This is not 2003.; 445-3572

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