Yesterday the Texas Public Policy Foundation released a report on “The Real Texas Budget.” The purpose of the report, as expressed in the introduction, is to help Texans understand what our state government actually spends—a task that is more difficult than it should be because of “legislative tactics, insufficient reporting, and the complexity of the system.” The report is the result of “weeks of work,” according to TPPF’s Chuck Devore, and covers state spending trends since 2004. The first of its key findings, though, concerns state spending, a topic that has been much in the news lately: “Total Texas state government spending for 2014-15 is estimated to be $201.9 billion, a 9 percent increase over the previous biennium.”
The figure is right in line with what Texas’s most credible budget experts estimated at the end of last year. As the regular legislative session wound up, Politifact Texas asked several analysts, most of whom estimated that state spending for the 2014-15 biennium would be 8 to 9 percent greater than in the 2012-13 biennium. The Legislative Budget Board, for example, estimated that the state’s general spending in 2014-2015 would increase 8.3% from 2012-13 (PDF). Staff for Tommy Williams, the Republican from The Woodlands who chaired the Senate Finance Committee, pointed to the LBB’s estimate as a good heuristic, with the note that the LBB’s figure had not been updated to reflect a supplemental spending measure that had been passed just in the nick of time.
The growth in state spending—let’s go ahead and call it 9 percent—was significant, but not out of line given the state’s population growth, and it didn’t break the state’s constitutional spending cap, which had been set at 10.71 percent. And the budget itself wasn’t controversial in the Legislature, which is, of course, controlled by Republicans; it passed both the House and the Senate with whopping majorities, and was signed by Rick Perry to general acclaim.
Lurking on the fringes, however, were a group of conservatives clamoring that the budget actually represented a 26 percent increase in spending for 2014-15 compared to 2012-13. That figure was a blatant misrepresentation, but one that gained a fair amount of traction, especially after the Wall Street Journal published an editorial, in June, harrumphing that the 26 percent surge in state spending amounted to a California-style spending spree that would put Texas on the road to serfdom. Opposition to the budget became a litmus test among conservatives, a factor that would be heavily weighed in the report cards some of them are elected to represent.
Where did the 26 percent figure come from? Well, it came from the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The same Texas Public Policy Foundation that just released a report estimating that state spending will increase 9 percent in the next biennium.
In other words, TPPF is now disavowing its own earlier analysis. In a way, I think we should let them; if people don’t have a chance to discreetly change their tune, there’s a greater risk that they’ll double down instead of trying to recalibrate. On the other hand, the 26 percent calculation was wrong, and damagingly so—damaging to the Republican party, to the cause of fiscal conservatism, and possibly to the state—so I think we need to take a moment to look at how they arrived at that figure, and what happened as a result.