The Bloody Billion

There’s English at the Capitol these days as politicos try to ax $1 billion from the state budget. Here are the boondoggles, sacred cows, and hidden fat they ought to cut—but won’t.

There aren’t many smiles in the corridors of the Capitol these days. The Legislature has to slash the state budget by $1 billion, and to make matters worse, the Quorum, everybody’s favorite watering hole, has been sold. On the third floor, supplicants from the state agencies and colleges gather outside the hearing rooms, their faces drawn and anxious. Legislators passing by avoid eye contact with the crowd, like jurors who have already condemned the defendant in their minds.

Numbers alone cannot explain the emotional toll exacted by the budget crisis. Texas is, after all, a low-tax state—forty-fourth in taxes paid per capita, and next to last in tax effort, which measures how much of its potential revenue a state is currently raising. What really accounts for the tension in the Capitol is much the same question that confronted the country as a whole in the late seventies: Is this the twilight of our glory? Or, in Texas terms: Is the boom over for good? Is this the end of the oil era? What will become of us?

To raise taxes is to admit defeat, to concede to diminished expectations. But cutting won’t be easy, for four reasons:

1. Politicians love to talk about fat and waste, but they hate to cut budgets. Every item has a vocal constituency. Cutting makes people mad. Spending makes people happy. Politicians have longer careers when people are happy.

2. You can’t cut the Texas budget without affecting the basics. Education, employee and teacher retirement, and the Big Three agencies (highways, prisons, mental health and mental retardation) account for three fourths of the money.

3. The budget is an intimidating document. Very few legislators even know how to read it, much less what’s in it. And they get no help from the bureaucracy; when money is on the line, candor disappears. The three big lies of the budget process are “We’re already cut to the bone, Senator,” “This program actually makes money for the state,” and “This is one of the most important things the state does.”

4. Every legislator fears that his district’s pet projects will be the first to go. That’s why most legislators seek sanctuary in across-the-board reductions, even though the effect is to cut the essentials and perpetuate the fat. Thus budget writers have handed the Legislature a proposal that decimates faculty salaries at all state universities but ignores the question of whether the state should maintain two universities in Denton.

What might a budget look like if the Legislature put politics aside (ho, ho, ho) for just one session? Here is a proposal for cutting $1 billion by eliminating the frills, waste, fat, and pork barrel while keeping the basics intact—especially higher education, so vital to a Texas without oil. I have added one touch of political realism, though. I’m not going to make cuts in Galveston, my hometown. Galveston has already been cut to the bone, it makes money for the state, and it includes some of the most important things the state does.

I. Vestiges

One of the more curious items in the proposed state budget is a $423,273 appropriation in 1987 for the Texas Sesquicentennial Commission. The sesquicentennial occurs in 1986.

This is a vestige in the making. Some parts of the budget reflect the Texas of yore—poor, rural, even ignorant—rather than the Texas of today. Yet these items take on a life of their own, swallowing up money in perpetuity, though the problems they were designed to solve long ago ceased to exist.

Target: Merit System Council
Recommendation: R.I.P.
Savings: $2.3 million

The council is supposed to make sure that Texas has merit-based personnel management system that conforms to federal standards, whatever that means. It doesn’t matter. Two year ago the feds stopped requiring states to have one. That didn’t prevent the agency from requesting a budget increase.

Target: National Guard and National Guard Armory Board
Recommendation: Unilateral disarmament
Savings: $18 million

Why do we need a state militia? Pancho Villa is dead. State troopers can handle disasters. Restoring order to the East Texas oil field, the Guard’s last mission, hasn’t been necessary since 1931. Today our National Guard plays solider in Honduras, while the State Guard recruits Yankees with the lure of cheap tuition at state colleges. The feds probably won’t let us get rid of the Guard, but we don’t have to pay for it with tax dollars. Enter the armory board. It maintains 143 armories across Texas, many of them on valuable urban land. Relocate the armories, sell the sites, and make these anachronisms self-supporting.

Target: Agriculture Department
Recommendation: Cut marketing 75 per cent
Savings: $8 million

A group of conservative legislators will be out to pare Jim Hightower’s budget this session. They’ll be doing the right thing for the wrong reason. With them, it’s personal. With us, it’s business. Try as he might, Hightower can’t change the fact that the Agriculture Department is the most visible vestige in state government.

Take the marketing program. It is really a public relations program, mainly because the state has no ability to influence marketing in a meaningful way. Once it was designed to get consumers to buy more Texas products, like eggs. Well, we all know where eggs come from. They come from Safeway. Reagan Brown, Hightower’s predecessor, may not have been very smart, but he had enough sense to know that the marketing program was useless, so he turned it into a self-promotion campaign.

Perhaps the agency deserves a little money to help make consumers aware of new Texas products, like wine. Still, why should the state finance PR for farmers but not for, say, oil companies, which are less loved and more important to Texas’ economy?

Target: Prison system freebie groceries
Recommendation: Lock the pantry
Savings: $3.5 million

More than a thousand Texas Department of Corrections employees get free groceries for two from the TDC’s agricultural program. This goody is a double vestige, in that it reflects the days when state employees were

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