Texas is unlike our nation’s federal government in many ways, not the least of which is our balanced budget. But just because a budget is balanced doesn’t mean it’s fiscally responsible.
With the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 crisis, and especially the steep decline in oil and gas production, Texas will be in for a tough budget cycle in 2021. However, if the Legislature chooses to lay politics and personal agendas aside, we can easily find areas to trim spending and make ends meet — without cutting essential services.
The most obvious step — but perhaps the one taken the least seriously by appropriators — is to cut frivolous, duplicative and just plain unnecessary programs.
Even beyond the egregious, headline-grabbing incidents like state agencies shelling out thousands of taxpayer dollars for lavish conferences in Hawaii and six-figure-a-month office rent, there are widespread examples of wasteful spending through duplicative programs, multiple agencies handling similar issues, and unnecessary occupational licenses in industries that don’t affect public health and safety.
A great place to start would be the health care, trucking and licensing regulations temporarily waived by Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders. If a rule isn’t essential during a crisis, or is so burdensome as to interfere with Texans getting the services they need, there’s a good chance it isn’t essential under everyday circumstances, either.
In fact, there are more than a few state agencies that could be eliminated altogether (perhaps with a few critical duties shuffled to another, more relevant entity) without the slightest impact on Texans’ lives. The Legislature should use this opportunity to increase the rigor of our sunset review process and consider whether each agency’s responsibilities are truly best handled at the state level, rather than the local level — if at all.
The Legislature should also closely review the litany of tax exemptions and loopholes that too often allow large corporations to benefit on the backs of ordinary Texans. For example, Chapter 312 and 313 abatements give substantial tax breaks to wind energy companies that often aren’t even held to their minimum job creation requirements.
Tax exemptions, particularly for inelastic property taxes, may be a small benefit to the recipient, but they increase the financial burden on the rest of us.
Finally, the long-term solution to ensure Texas’ budget doesn’t needlessly inflate when the economy recovers is zero-based budgeting. Instead of assuming an arbitrary baseline level of funding, derived solely from how successfully appropriators were lobbied in the previous session, agencies should be required to justify each and every expense.
This approach has helped Texas weather tough budget cycles before. In 2011, facing a $10 billion shortfall, legislators cut spending and balanced the budget without raising taxes by starting the budget from scratch. It’s clear there is room to trim the fat, without increasing tax burdens, through careful, impartial analysis and zero-based budgeting.
Texans are tough, and our independent spirit forged in 1836 is still going strong. Just as we tighten our belts when the going gets tough, so too should the Texas Legislature treat our tax dollars with restraint and respect in this trying time.
This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on April 20, 2020.