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