Watson: Budget woes must be fixed
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, calls for those in control in Texas to provide leadership out of the budget swamp into which Texans have been sinking.
Watson, a moderate, reasonable, solution-oriented guy, spoke Nov. 15 at the Bob Bullock Texas History
Bob Bullock Texas History Museum to several civic and other groups about major challenges facing the Legislature in its regular session that begins Jan. 11.
Too many people and groups say “Nothing good is going to happen,” Watson said.
The state budget faces a predicted gap between revenue and projected spending of $20 billion to as much as $28 billion.
That’s about one-fourth of the budget legislators control. Four-fifths of it pays for education, and health care, mostly for children and seniors.
Watson said the budget is “a moral document . . . the clearest, truest statement of priorities you can find . . . to translate rhetoric into reality, or to expose the inadequacy of easy answers and something-fornothing schemes.”
Three options to deal with the gap, Watson says, are “cuts, cash, and the kitty.”
Cuts: “The legislature can cut deeply and painfully into basic responsibilities and necessities: everything from schools, to health care, to parks, to public safety, to prisons, to roads.”
Cash: “The legislature can raise revenue from Texans at a time when folks are already feeling strapped and worried about putting food on the table.”
An “impossibly, irresponsibly rosy picture of the future” won’t cut it.
The Kitty: “Legislators can drain most or all of our savings accounts, starting with the state’s roughly $8 billion Rainy Day Fund, knowing that our hard times probably aren’t over.”
Watson said it’s “a burning house” in which everybody is trapped. All should be “racking our brains to figure out a way to put out the flames (and) decide what we want to save, what’s most important to us.”
He thinks it can be done.
“Over the next seven months, we can chart a path that will take Texans to the safe ground it used to know, where budgets were not just balanced, but
sustainably balanced,” Watson says.
Start to rebuild, and “follow the example of our elders, who responsibly invested in the roads, water projects, security, schools and world-class universities that were good for them, good for Texas and good for our future,” Watson urges.
One of those elders is Republican Bill Ratliff, a former Texas lieutenant governor and senator. He called for critics like the Tea Party to bring forth ideas to solve problems or shut up.
Watson says Texans can have “fiscally responsible government that can meet the essential needs . . . that every single person and business in this state relies on . . . that strengthen the foundation of individual prosperity.”
Watson says it’s “fiscally irresponsible to do anything but this. But to do it, we have to look – honestly and responsibly – at how we got here.”
The former Austin mayor is no stranger to government and budgets.
“The budget is a disaster – but it’s not an entirely natural one,” Watson says.
“Our government has failed us. It’s been irresponsible with our money, less than candid in its accounting of it, and grossly undisciplined in its empty promises of something-for-nothing.”
True, the economy’s down, Watson said. But “it took the legislature and others in government to make things as bad as we’re seeing.”
“The folks in control of the state’s finances left the kindling lying around and had every reason to expect it to ignite,” Watson said. When it caught fire, “there wasn’t much of a fire department left to extinguish it.”
Some of the problems, Watson says:
• Billions have been diverted from what citizens were told were to support specific basic needs.
• Those in control “have relied increasingly on debt” – despite the state’s pay-as-you-go requirement – particularly in highways. That’s left us overly dependent on “the hypocritical tax of toll roads.”
• The business tax was revised in 2006, while those in charge knew “it wouldn’t cover the check they were writing as part of a tax shift.”
And it’s been “hidden or covered over through, among other things, a Texas-sized (federal) bailout of state government last session.”
But the jig’s up, Watson says. “The reckoning is here.”
He’ll be unveiling a three-part “Honesty Agenda,” calling for changes in budget accountability; a stability package of reforms to modernize government and restore its credibility; and requiring that “those in charge set out a path for cleaning up this fiscal mess and building a responsible, truthful, truly moral state budget.”
Watson says he won’t vote for tax or fee increases, or budgets, or spending from the Rainy Day Fund, until reforms open up the process, and support the state’s needs with a revenue system that can sustain it. Tough words, for tough times.
The full text of Watson’s speech is on his website at www.kirkwatson.com.
Longtime Texas political columnist Dave McNeely, who retired from the Austin American-Statesman in 2004, writes a weekly column on Texas politics for three dozen Texas newspapers. With longtime Dallas journalist and author Jim Henderson, McNeely is the author of “Bob Bullock: God Bless Texas.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (512) 458-2963.