Two Lawmakers, Two Different Takes on the Texas Budget as 85th Legislature Opens

Legislators will have to work with a budget 2.7 percent less than they expected.

By Rhonda Fanning & Michael MarksJanuary 10, 2017 12:19 pm|

Today marks the start of the 85th Texas legislative session. Lawmakers will have 140 days to pass bills and set the budget for the next two years. But the projected amount they’ll have to work with is 2.7 percent less than what they’ve been expecting.

The drop to $104.87 billion is due in part to a loss of revenue. Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) says the lower budget is also self-inflicted.

“We knew last session when we had approximately $4 billion in tax cuts that the oil and gas industry was going to be slowing down, we would have less revenue coming in,” Howard says. “That means we have to figure out other ways to fund critical needs of education, healthcare and other parts of infrastructure.”

Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Sunnyvale) says the state’s priority needs move around each session and lawmakers will do their best to work within the allotted budget. The state has also asked each agency to submit their funding needs at 4 percent less that what they currently have.

“We’ll look at every single need,” Burkett says. “Hopefully sometime between January and May we get a little bit more flexibility as we actually start getting actual numbers in.”

Howard says there already is money that allows for flexibility: the Economic Stabilization Fund, or rainy day fund, which has a projected $12 billion.

“We have room to use some of those funds within the Economic Stabilization Fund,” she says, “which is to help us weather the storm of some downturns.”

Using the fund would prevent lawmakers from making unnecessary cuts and help the state fund much-needed areas like Child Protective Services and public education, Howard says.

“The fact is that we have been balancing the budget, in my opinion, on the backs of children,” Howard says. “We not only have the issues with the foster care system but we have also recently heard about a large number of special education students not getting their needs met. There are many needs that we could be funding that help children, that may or may not be a crisis to some people. But I think that’s a real moral and fiduciary duty we have.”

Burkett says the fund is only for emergency items, not long-term funding.

“The downside to using rainy day fund money for anything that’s an ongoing budget requirement, i.e. salaries of any sort … is that it’ll quickly be eaten down using your ‘savings.’ And then what happens when you get to the end of it?”

Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.