Don’t trust Abbott’s budget cuts

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A report by the Houston Chronicle on Thursday detailed the $1 billion in cuts Republicans are proposing to the state budget in response to the pandemic-driven recession.

In a budget document obtained by the paper, $380 million cuts are slated for this fiscal year and another $680 million are being planned for the upcoming fiscal year.

“That lack of transparency has left providers and advocates in the dark about cuts to programs used by millions of vulnerable Texans – including specialized health care programs, oversight of child care facilities and the state’s system for enrolling children and families in services such as food stamps and Medicaid,” reported the Chronicle. 

As a result of the Texas Legislature meeting only biennially, or every two years, the $1 billion in interim cuts are being directed by Gov. Greg Abbott and a handful of Republicans on the Legislative Budget Board, chaired by House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. 

Together, the governor and the board have basically absolute authority in reappropriating or reducing the spending of state agencies in between sessions. That means Republican leaders have pretty much free reign to cut the state budget without input from the Texas Legislature, the branch of state government that drafts appropriations.

It’s a good example of how both biennial lawmaking and budgeting in Texas  — one of only four states in the country that does it this way — are prone to uncertainty and have allowed Abbott to centralize authority in his hands during a crucial moment where legislative oversight, collaborative budgeting, and lawmaking is so desperately needed. 

It’s especially concerning because there is no shortage of reasons to distrust sweeping cuts made by a cadre of right-wing Republicans who have spent their political careers, pandemic or not, doing exactly that; reducing government spending by any means necessary may as well be the mantra of the Republican Party.

One ironic and recent example: when the Texas Tribune published an investigative report last year detailing how Patrick was allowing the understaffed Legislative Budget Board to fall apart, as well as shaping the non-partisan agency he co-chairs to suit GOP needs, the lieutenant governor’s response to the article was revealing: “Absolutely right!”

Budget agency and Capitol staff quoted in the story said Patrick was attempting to “remake the agency to give the Senate more direct control over the number-crunchers” because
“the current group of nonpartisan bureaucrats has produced analyses that at times conflicted with the lieutenant governor’s political messaging.” 

In short, when it comes to Texas Republicans, it’s impossible to parse the difference between ideologically-driven austerity and cuts made out of good governance.

In 2011, Texas Republicans argued that massive cuts to healthcare and public education were needed to offset a projected budget shortfall caused by the Great Recession. The cuts were made, the predicted budget shortfall never materialized, and Republicans dragged their feet for almost a decade before finally restoring and expanding funding for public schools (which still face per-student funding below the prior decade).  

It was a classic case of shock doctrine, a term popularized by journalist and social activist Naomi Klein to describe how political leaders exploit crises as ideological playgrounds, to ravage the public sector, reduce government spending, and generally market human misery as an exciting investment. 

One can almost imagine the conversation playing out next session. The massive boost to public education made during the 2019 session must be reversed, Patrick will argue. The public school system must be gutted and replaced with private charter schools to do away with pesky property taxes, only then can we fully recover from the pandemic!

“We’ve spent almost an entire decade trying to recover from the cuts from 2011 with different revenue sources and moving the ball around, and I think we finally made some real progress during the 2019 session,” Luis Figueroa, the legislative and policy director at the left-leaning think tank Every Texan told the Signal. “It would be a shame to move two steps backward and start that cycle all over again.” 

Figueroa said a pandemic-recession is not the time to be cutting social services, especially when the state’s Rainy Day Fund remains untapped along with a number of revenue sources that can be used to diversify, modernize and update the state’s taxes. One example, adjusting the state’s gasoline tax for inflation. It was last updated almost three decades ago in 1991 and  if adjusted, could provide $3.3 billion for the state — a move that would cover a large chunk of the $4.6 billion 2021 revenue shortfall being predicted by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar. 

“I don’t think they can cut their way out of this,” Figueroa said. “We have a revenue problem in Texas. And they’re going to paint themselves into a corner if their hope is to just shrink government and solve this in a state that is growing demographically and has more and more needs year to year.”

“You’re going to end up having more shortfalls down the road, having more unemployment, and having less people recover, and a longer recovery period,” Figueroa said.

Evidence of this lies in the misguided response taken by states across the nation following the 2007-2008 financial crisis. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive Washington-based think tank, recently compared states that shrunk or expanded their public sector workforce during the Great Recession. They found states that made cuts to the state workforce in response to the economic crisis actually took longer to recover from it.

Texans still have a chance to voice their complaints over the looming budget cuts during a public hearing scheduled this fall. If Republican leaders are unmoved, the fate of many social services in the state will depend on a currently stalled congressional response or election-driven changes to the makeup of the Texas Legislature when it reconvenes in 2021.

Photo: Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images

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