Thursday, August 11, 2005

Budget baloney from the Legislature

EDITORIAL BOARD / Austin Am-Statesman
Thursday, August 11, 2005

One of the more hypocritical promises tossed out by many legislative political candidates and state lawmakers is one to run state government more like a business. The idea is that if we'll just elect people with good "bidness" sense, we'll get straightforward, efficient financial administration of state government. No waste, no games.


Just take a look at the current Legislature. During its regular session this spring, it approved and the governor signed a $139 billion state budget for the next two years. It's balanced, but lawmakers get no credit for that — the state Constitution requires it.

But to balance the budget, lawmakers had to resort to some accounting footwork in which they continue to take in various taxes or fees earmarked for certain ends — better 911 service, trauma hospital support to name two — but not actually spend the money. Instead, the money is left idling in a bank account. Why? To offset over-spending elsewhere in the budget. Why? So the budget will balance.

In fact, the 911 service fee paid on all telephone bills will collect $96 million over the next two years that could be spent on emergency services, but the Legislature appropriated only $87 million of it. According to the state comptroller, there's already $75 million in the fund from the 911 fees that hasn't been spent.

A similar situation is developing with a new fee assessed against traffic violators; that money is supposed to be used for hospital emergency rooms, and it could bring up to $77 million over the next two years — but only $62 million was appropriated. The "shortage" could cost Austin's Brackenridge Hospital, the principal trauma hospital for Central Texas, as much as $2.5 million.

State Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a stout fiscal conservative and a businessman. He said this budget trickery was necessary for the state to generate enough money to meet its share of growing Medicaid costs and still balance the budget.

His explanation exposes the real problem: The state's tax and fee structure is out of whack with economic and budget reality and overdue for a major overhaul. Ogden knows it, and he has favored an expansion of the state's business taxes.

But few state leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, are willing to offend established business interests or to slice into the biggest baloney of all, their assurance that the state can meet all its essential needs without raising any taxes.

Meanwhile, if you find yourself waiting for help in an overcrowded emergency room or having a problem getting a 911 call through, snack on some legislative budget baloney.

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