It’s probably clear enough at this point that I’m against the Senate’s proposals to exempt tax relief and debt service from being counted against the spending cap for a number of reasons. I see no good purpose for them. Although lessening property taxes and paying down debt are honorable goals, neither seems critical enough to warrant overriding the spending cap, especially this year. In calling for more spending, the Senate is not being frivolous: Texas has one of the lowest spending rates per capita in the country, and has maintained fiscal discipline even as the budget has come under pressure for a variety of reasons (the soaring costs of Medicaid, the growth in school enrollment). However, the Lege has some breathing room this session; the spending cap allows for $107 billion in general revenue-related spending, compared to about $97 billion last time around. That would leave $4 or $5 billion on the table, but it’s worth resisting the temptation to splurge. The Lege will probably need to top up school finance next year, and a surplus might be a lifesaver when the next regular session rolls around, in 2017: the Texas economy’s rate of growth is slowing.
If these proposals somehow made it into the Constitution, I think we’d be effectively undermining the spending cap itself. I know some people think that’s overly pessimistic; among Michael Quinn Sullivan’s many grievances with me is that (in his view), the proposals are about “redefining” the cap, not busting it. Sorry, no. The proposals are attempting to redefine spending, not the cap, and I think it would be naïve to look at this as an abstract intellectual exercise, or one that wouldn’t set a risky precedent. If the 84th Lege can “redefine” certain types of spending, future Legislatures can “redefine” others. And I don’t see why they wouldn’t try, if Texas’s self-professed “conservative” leaders set such a precedent this year–especially if they concurrently make the spending cap more restrictive, thereby making these gimmicks more tempting. That’s why, although I doubt this was the intention, I think the Senate’s leaders are putting Texas’s spending cap at risk.
But there’s a more serious problem with these proposals. They undermine Texas’s fiscal integrity. And that is, to me, one of our greatest virtues. Sometimes I think it’s the only one worth being called a virtue. By “fiscal integrity,” I mean something that encompasses fiscal discipline and fiscal responsibility but goes even farther and matters more than discipline or responsibility on their own.