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The Looming Budget Battle

Fair warning, legislators: the General Appropriations bill isn’t a guidance memo.

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Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Though 2016 certainly seems like an oddly interminable political year, it will, in theory, eventually end. And preparations for the 85th Legislature, which begins in January 2017, are underway. With that in mind I wanted to highlight a letter that Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Joe Straus sent to state agencies last week about the budget requests that agencies will submit before the session kicks off.

The letter, which you can read in full here, lays out some expectations of the 2018-19 budget requests, the most straightforward being that they expect the agencies to whittle their funding requests by four percent. It also includes a number of exceptions to that requirement—for Child Protective Services, for example—that may be read as tea leaves about the issues they will prioritize next year. It also includes a couple of phrases that struck me as potentially ominous. Each budget request, according to the Big Three, “must include information providing the budget request by program.” Further, “zero-based budget information will also be requested.”

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with program-based budgeting or zero-based budgeting. The latter, especially, has a lot of intuitive appeal for fiscal conservatives; it basically involves writing the budget from scratch, and might be described as the budgetary equivalent of that KonMari decluttering method you might have heard about. In practice, though, by asking the 85th Lege to produce a General Appropriations bill through program- and zero-based budgeting techniques, Abbott, Patrick, and Straus might have made some overly optimistic assumptions about the Lege’s ability to do so without some consequential spreadsheet errors.

That could, I suppose, sound overly cynical on my part. If so, I’d encourage you to read about Alice Dorne, a disabled ten-year-old Texan who may lose access to occupational and state therapy soon enough, because on July 15th, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission will begin implementing cuts to the state’s Medicaid Acute Care Therapy program. The cuts in question, which I wrote about last year, were made at the last minute on the basis of dubious data about state spending on the services in question. They may nonetheless have been a good idea, but it’s hard to say, because none of the Republicans who voted for them have yet to explain their reasoning in public. And that being the case, I would hope they’re not glibly assuming that everyone’s mastered the basics of the budget process, because such complacency could easily lead to even worse mistakes.

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    Good introduction to what will be a lengthy consideration. The fact that the Legislature reduced the General Revenue available to it next session by $9 billion with its various cuts and dedications last session will certainly not make the job any easier. As to the 4% cut, that is in addition to another instruction in the information given the agencies on how to construct their requests that they plan on a 10%. The Legislature tried zero-based budgeting back when Hobby was Lt. Governor. It was a fad at the time and he brought it to the process here. It never worked that well other than sounding good when you told the public what it meant. Program budgeting also allows those with a special desire to cut or kill a particular program an easy shot at the particular program….that includes the governor. Next thing they will be including the detailed salaries of the top people in each agency as line items as they did back in the old days. That gives legislators and the governor a direct shot at someone they don’t like.

    • Jed

      zero-based budgeting is an effort to ignore what you have learned over the entire history of government about what it costs and what is required to do a thing. even corporations don’t do it more than once, after which they realize they have a business to run and have no time for grandstanding.

      it is obviously stupid and counterproductive, so to observe that it “has a lot of intuitive appeal for fiscal conservatives” is redundant.

  • Kozmo

    Typical blindness on the part of state leadership. The state is growing rapidly, creating strain on all public services, yet the lege wants to pretend these can be provided on the cheap, or magically become less expensive as the state grows larger.

    Has ANY city in Texas that has experienced the runaway growth of the last few decades gotten ANY cheaper to live in? The idea that growth pays for itself is complete nonsense. Growth always costs MORE. If growth cost less, Austin would be dirt cheap to live in instead of the unaffordable monster it has become.

    Citizens really should wake up and get wise to the snow job they’ve been sold all these years. WE are paying for all these record business profits and corporate tax evaders. Taxpayers are subsidizing growth that only benefits a select few privileged operators. And state government thinks schools and roads and public safety pay for themselves.

    • WUSRPH

      Saying that this is a result of “blindness” gives the wrong impression. It is not that they do not know what they are doing….Patrick and Abbott know just what their demands mean—-less spending on the existing state needs—and that is just what they want. These cuts do two things—first, by not producing the needed funds it guarantees that the State will not satisfy the demands on it…further undermining public confidence in government and, second, free up money for their special programs. For example, they do not want to go to the polls in 2018 being hit with “cutting spending for education”. That means they will probably keep the spending for public education about where it is or slightly increase it, but they need the funds freed up by the 4% cuts in other areas to fund such things as the Patrick-Abbott plans to fund private and church related education.

    • Fantasy Maker

      It is quite simple, politicians will say whatever is politically expedient to get elected. NONE of them tell you the complete unvarnished truth because they would never get elected!
      Instead they talk in BS platitudes without much specificity and do just enough in office to give the appearance they are actually doing something to win reelection.It is all one big fiasco and that goes on at the local, state, national and global levels.

      Look at Greece, massive corruption IN the government as well as the citizens not even paying income taxes or what they should pay, yet Germany and the EU bail them out time and time again. You could insert Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC, New Orleans or any other city and see clowns doing little more than blaming someone else or some other party.

      Pathetic, indefensible yet the sheeple continue to believe the carefully worded talking points. None of these clowns in government have a clue- just kick the can down the road for someone else to deal with.

  • John Bernard Books

    Awwwww Jeeeez Edith the first things dems say are gonna be cut are fire, police and health and human services…..
    Does the bored state worker really need 20 holidays?

    • space2k

      No kidding. We should definitely cut “Confederate Heroes Day”.

      • John Bernard Books

        You want to cut Confederate heroes day but not Caesar Chavez day?
        Why not both?

    • Zelka

      Your facts about Dem cuts are wrong and your link is to the website of a republican listing his 20 holidays

      • John Bernard Books

        Go back and read the article.

      • WUSRPH


         From your comment it appears that the Troll is once more spreading totally and deliberately incorrect information about state employee holidays. This link takes you to the official word from that good Republican Comptroller Hegar. As you will see, as usual the Troll misstates the facts.

        • John Bernard Books

          Nope you’re lying again and your link proves it 24 holidays for bored state workers. ie
          “San Jacinto Day Skeleton Crew Required”
          For the low information voter what this means is 1 or 2 answer phones and everyone is off, then the 1 or 2 that “worked” that day takes off another day. Meanwhile on San Jac day no work gets done…..much like any other day in a bored state worker’s office. The only difference if they post to Burqua blog from home instead of at work.

          • gordo

            Once again, a fact free zone begs to be corrected. The potential holidays marked as “optional” mean that employees, at their own election, may take the day off if they work the others. The federal holidays mean the office is closed entirely. The skeleton crew means the office has to be open, and employees who have to work get to take one of the other “optional” days off. I think state employees get 15 paid holidays, not 20.

  • Rules of Blazon

    The Republicans who control our state have zero interest in funding anything except their pointless, never-ending culture war. I wouldn’t be surprised if they ginned up a pretense to avoid funding all public services, including public education. The only elected officials we have who are serious about or capable of governing are Democrats, and there aren’t nearly enough of them to stave off whatever disasters the Republicans in charge will plague us with. Even if the national blue wave is big enough, the horrendous gerrymander in Texas protects too many of the most noxious Republicans.

    We are so effing screwed.


    Some thing rare for me: A good word for Gregg Abbott.
    His immediate public response last night to the horrible event in Dallas was mature, appropriate and thoughtful. H

    • Jackson

      “Mature, appropriate, and thoughtful.” Yeah, fine, but isn’t that how statewide elected officials are supposed to behave? It’s an indication of how boorish and opportunistic a lot of politicians have become that when one of them does something as simple and routine as issue a public response without one eye on the script and the other on the next primary that we feel compelled to say, “Good job.”

      The flags are at half-mast. For a politician to NOT make remarks in public that are reflective of that is not an act of political courage; or at least, it shouldn’t be.

      • WUSRPH

        Good point…..Even Trump’s remarks (last night at least) were appropriate. I thought Newt Gingrich’s comments today about how we as average Whites do not know what it is like to be Black in America were especially good—almost courageous when he could have so easiy joined in to condemn the protestors.


    The stay issued by the Texas Supreme Court in the child therapy case may be just what the state really wants…By blocking the cuts for now, it can drag the situation out long enough to give the Legislature time to “fix” the situation in January so that the cuts never actually take affect. In fact, that might be one reason the Court was willing to issue a stay in what otherwise appears to be a slam dunk win for State, The Legislature ordered the cut. Courts don’t get to second guess that action… even if the Legislature has second thoughts…as some (but not Patrick) seem to in this case.


    The stay issued by the Texas Supreme Court in the child therapy budget cut case may be just what the state really wants…By blocking the cuts for now, it can drag the situation out long enough to give the Legislature time to “fix” the situation in January so that the cuts never actually take affect. In fact, that might be one reason the Court was willing to issue a stay in what otherwise appears to be a slam dunk win for State, The Legislature ordered the cut. Courts don’t get to second guess that action… even if the Legislature has second thoughts…as some (but not Patrick) seem to in this case.

  • Asher B. Garber

    We need a state tax. Property taxes leave an unfair burden to those of us with homes but not the income to pay our ridiculous property tax assessments.

    Reminder: State taxes are written off the Federal tax.