AFTER HER ELECTION AS STATE comptroller in November 1998, Carole Keeton Rylander sought advice about her new job, a largely obscure office except for one detail: The State of Texas cannot spend a dime without her approval. It is the comptroller’s responsibility to tell the Legislature how much money is available to spend and to refuse to approve the lawmakers’ budget if they fail to stay within her revenue estimate. The tension between Legislature and comptroller can get serious at times, and so the person Rylander turned to was a man who understood tension: Bob Bullock, who had held the office for sixteen years (1975-1991) before serving another eight as lieutenant governor. Often irascible, occasionally brilliant, but always informed, Bullock, before he died in 1999, gave freely of his advice to anyone who asked for it (and to many who did not), regardless of party.
“I visited with Bullock a couple of times before he died,” says Rylander, who was reelected last month, “and one thing is absolutely emblazoned in my mind: ‘Carole, you never want to overshoot the runway on a revenue estimate.’ And so, when I tell people I am not going to overshoot the runway [with a high revenue estimate], I’m quoting Bullock.”
This is not good news for the Legislature. When the next regular session begins, in January 2003, budget writers will face one of the largest shortfalls in the state’s history: at least $5 billion, according to Rylander’s preliminary estimate, and perhaps as much as $10 billion. A “perfect storm” of slowing economic growth; continuing in-migration that strains schools, prisons, and health care systems; and vanishing state savings means that lawmakers will have to make deep spending cuts or raise taxes. And the storm is heading Rylander’s way: The lower her revenue estimate is, the more hard choices the Legislature will have to make.
The tug-of-war between the comptroller and the budget writers is nothing new. Even in less fiscally challenging times, lawmakers have been known to greet