Monday, January 7, 2013

Pre-83rd Texas Lege Monday: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

On the Monday before the Texas Legislature fires things up for 140 days of hilarity and parties serious legislative work for the people we're always greeted with the spectacle of the State Comptroller providing us with the estimates of just how much taxpayer money the State will have to spend for the next biennium.  Today, Tx Comptroller Susan Combs did it again:

Combs says Texas will have $101.4 Billion for Budget. Aman Batheja, Texas Tribune

First: The good.
Combs predicted that the state will collect $96.2 billion in revenue from taxes, fees and other income during the 2014-15 biennium. The fund already had $8.8 billion left over from the current biennium. Of the new revenue, $3.6 billion will be transferred to the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which Combs predicted will grow to $11.8 billion.
That's an increase, which should help the Lege avoid repeats of the budget mess we saw two years ago.  Not that Texas is turning into a tax and spend blue state and there is every indication that Democrats will (surprise!) not be happy while Republicans are going to want to cut more, but there's enough money that, hopefully, the Lege will not have to leave sitting out there unfunded liabilities as they did in the last session.  Regardless of which side of the political aisle you find yourself on this is a good thing.  It means that the discussions this session should be focused on the margins, and not around more central items.

Second: The bad.
“$108 billion is what it takes to actually undo the last session and get us back to where we used to be,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, senior budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin-based think tank.
(...)
“A lot of that gets sucked up right away just paying for the last session,” Castro said.
Talmadge Heflin, a budget expert with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former legislator
To their credit, The Trib IS getting better at identifying progressive policy groups like the CPPP than they used to be.  However, there's still a lot of wiggle room between "left-leaning" and progressive, which the CPPP surely is. They have no problem labeling the TPPF "conservative" so I'm at a loss to figure out why correct identification of CPPP is so difficult?  Still, improvement is improvement and bad is certainly better than heinous, which has been their norm.

Last: The Ugly.
Combs said Monday that many economic forecasters did not foresee the size of the recession and that the ensuing volatility has continued to make budget estimates difficult to pin down.
In January 2011, Combs projected $72.2 billion in general revenue would be available for the current 2012-13 biennium.
“We had a whopper of a recession, and my hope is we don’t see a sort of European-style slowdown,” Combs said.
Combs offered a similar defense two years ago, when she acknowledged that her previous revenue estimate for the 2010-11 biennium had been overly optimistic by about $4.3 billion.
I asked this on Twitter and I'll repeat the question here:  Can anyone give me one reason we should trust the numbers provided by Comb's office? If there's a poster child for ineffective state-wide officeholders Combs is exhibit A. While financial projections can be tricky, they're not impossible.  The problem is Comb's doesn't provide much background behind how she came up with the number and I sometimes wonder if they have much behind "well, it just feels right doesn't it?"  The fact is her office has blown the forecast for the last two sessions, and now she's being allowed to punt and blame the mythical "others" when explaining her past failures.

In short, we're starting this legislative session on numbers that appear to be a hunch, which are big departures from currently developing trends and we don't have anything to base this on other than a Comptroller who thought it would be a neat idea to give a few Million dollars to Bernie Eccelstone.  Pardon me if I'm not filled with enthusiasm over this.

Finally, my thanks go out to the Texas Tribune and my apologies to you for the high amount of block-quoting in this post.  While my goal is to try and avoid it, there are times when you just have to copy things over to make a larger point.  I do encourage you to go visit the Tribune site and read Mr. Batheja's full piece.  It is an interesting read.

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