The 86th Texas Legislature gaveled into session Tuesday. Dare we hope this is one session conducted by grownup legislators with grownup priorities, free of such distracting right-wing nonsense as the bathroom bill of 2017? Most talk suggests the interwoven issues of property-tax reform and school finance are top priorities this time around. Relief from Hurricane Harvey will also demand state cash as well as, we hope, some smarts on how to prevent further disaster. And there’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s promise to hike teacher pay by an average of $10,000. We’re eager to see how this is done without heaping more unfunded mandates on school districts.
In case legislators begin pondering expensive new initiatives, we advise them to closely consult State Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s sobering caveat in his just-released biennial revenue estimate, which includes $119.1 billion available for general-purpose spending in the 2020-21 biennium: Yes, state lawmakers, you probably will have enough money to get through the session, even with the expensive fix required to restore the state share of funding public schools, which has inexcusably ebbed from about 50 percent more than a decade ago to about 35 percent today (depending on how you figure the costs). We the local property taxpayers make up the difference. Keep your eyes on HJR 24.
“Looking ahead to the 2020-21 biennium, we remain cautiously optimistic but recognize we are unlikely to see continued revenue growth at the unusually strong rates we have seen in recent months,” Comptroller Hegar grimly informed state lawmakers. “Oil prices have dropped sharply since October, financial markets have demonstrated increased volatility, interest rates have been rising and U.S. trade policy remains uncertain. As the nation’s leading export state, the Texas economy in particular is exposed to potential reductions in international trade.”
We praise Comptroller Hegar (whom we warmly endorsed in the fall election) for not playing political games but instead reflecting the growing concern that many economists and CEOs voice about the economy and possibility of a recession later this year or in 2020. That means legislators should demonstrate skepticism about gestures such as spending billions more in state revenue to bolster border security. Last we checked this was a federal responsibility. Given that President Trump claims the border situation is in crisis, isn’t it time then to consign the state’s beefed-up presence a colossal failure?
It also means that state lawmakers tripping all over themselves the past several sessions to cut more and more taxes might want to pause long enough to see if they have enough revenue coming in to cover enormous expenditures such as public education, infrastructure and health care. We lag behind in all three areas — not good for a state that pretends to cater to the business sector. That sector has steep expectations — and if the state falters in providing tomorrow’s educated workforce or making sure that goods and people get readily from Point A to Point B, then state leaders will be left to ponder a wilting Texas Miracle they weren’t smart enough to maintain to any lasting degree. We’ll know soon enough.