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State Highway Fund

House considers a bigger ask from the Rainy Day Fund

Needs must, as they say.

The proposal from state Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican and the House’s chief budget writer, would withdraw about $2.4 billion from the Rainy Day Fund as part of a supplemental budget to pay bills coming due for programs like Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, and to pay for repairs to state-run institutions including mental hospitals and the School for the Deaf.

Previously, Zerwas advocated spending about $1.4 billion from the fund, which holds about $10 billion currently. He updated his proposal at Thursday’s meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, saying that without making a “modest withdrawal” from the savings fund, budget writers would be forced to make draconian cuts to public programs.

Entities that face budget cuts absent a cash infusion include the state’s public education system, pensions for retired teachers, and the Texas child welfare and foster care system charged with protecting vulnerable children from abuse and neglect, Zerwas said.

“Some members of our body have said publicly that our situation isn’t really that bad,” he said. “I can’t disagree more with that.”

Most legislative sessions, the Texas Legislature does not fully fund the cost of state programs, so lawmakers must typically pass a supplemental bill to cover the rest. Zerwas’ proposal would net some matching federal dollars, bringing the total value of the bill to $5.2 billion, officials said. About $3 billion would plug funding holes left by lawmakers in 2015, mostly in Medicaid and in a health care program for the state prison system.

The rest would go toward current needs, such as “deferred maintenance” costs at state-run institutions including mental hospitals, many of which are in disrepair.

See here for the background. I approve of Zerwas’ approach and appreciate what he is saying, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that a big part of the problem he is trying to solve is self-inflicted. As the story notes, tax cuts passed in the last session, at a time when oil and gas prices were low and the state’s economy wasn’t doing so well, cost $4 billion this biennium, while the referendum to dedicate a portion of sales tax revenue to the state highway fund has taken $5 billion out of the general fund. Zerwas had to file a separate bill to claw some of that money back. These were choices made by the leadership and the Legislature, the former because tax cuts are Republican crack, and the latter because we absolutely, positively refuse to consider raising the gas tax to meet our road needs. Budget gimmicks are just that, and whatever they purport to do, there’s always another gimmick to undo it. As a certain former President once said, reality has a way of asserting itself.

Bill to restore some budget flexibility filed

Call it the Law of Unintended Consequences Act of 2017.

The Texas House’s chief budget writer filed legislation Friday that would allow lawmakers to claw back billions of dollars that voters approved for state highways, freeing them up for other budget needs.

Texans overwhelmingly voted in 2015 to boost funding for the state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under a growing population. Proposition 7 amended the Texas Constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, filed a resolution Friday that would cut that initial cash infusion, aiming to free up money at a time when cash is tight.

House Concurrent Resolution 108 could cut the first transfer under Proposition 7 of nearly $5 billion in half, but only if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate support such a move.

It’s a prospect made possible by what some lawmakers have called a “safety valve” in Senate Joint Resolution 5, the legislation that the Legislature approved in 2015 to send Proposition 7 to voters later that year.

See here for the background. I don’t expect this to pass – I really don’t think two thirds of the Senate will go for it – but I will be very amused if it does. Whether this is more or less likely to happen than tapping the Rainy Day Fund is now something we can test empirically. If nothing else, that’s a victory for science.

Turns out a little budget flexibility is a good thing

Some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

More than a year after Texas voters approved routing billions in state sales taxes to roads and bridges, some lawmakers are questioning whether the first payment of $5 billion should move forward as planned.

Texans voted in 2015 to boost funding for state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under the state’s growing population. Proposition 7 — loudly cheered by top Texas leaders and supported by 83 percent of voters — changed the constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But in an unusually tightfisted legislative session, some Texas lawmakers are raising the prospect of reducing that initial cash infusion to the State Highway Fund scheduled for this year to free up money for other state programs.

No one has publicly backed such a move, but key budget writers have privately discussed the option. And at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Monday, Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown asked Legislative Budget Board staffers about how it might work.

It turns out that the enabling legislation for that referendum included an escape hatch, in which a two-thirds vote can be used to divert some of that $5 billion for other purposes. That probably won’t happen, though I presume it’s no less likely than a vote to tap the Rainy Day Fund to get through this session and hope that things will be better in 2019. We can certainly debate whether it should happen or not, but my reason for highlighting this is that it’s yet another example of why artificial budget constraints are so often a bad idea, whose main effect is to force budget writers to come up with creative ways around said constraints. I say it’s more honest to just let them have the flexibility to figure it out rather than be forced into certain choices, but that’s not how we do things.