Sunday, January 16, 2011

Budget Options

This blog is titled Inside Milam County, but for the next 135 or so days you might think it would be more aptly titled Inside Austin. The reason is that the 82nd Legislature is in session and a lot of what happens between now and sine die (Latin for; without fixing a day for future action or meeting, or a fancy way of saying it's finally over) will in fact affect all of us inside Milam County.

Texas is currently operating under a deficit budget. Some pundits say that lawmakers created a "structural" deficit in the state budget process in 2005, when they cut school property taxes by one-third and expanded the business tax to make up the difference. But the business tax brings in billions less each year than the property tax did, meaning that with every new budget, lawmakers must find more and more extra money to make up the difference. The structure of the revenue system creates deficits each year. It seems to me as though our Austin leaders set themselves, and us, up for failure in 2005.

I will be the first to admit that we have a huge budget problem in the state. No doubt about that, but how to fix it is the real question. Consolidation of agencies is one idea being floated around Austin, and most folks will probably agree that consolidating state agencies is a good idea. I know I do. However, sometimes the devil truly is in the details. In per capita spending by state, Texas ranks 50th in the nation, meaning there is likely less fat to trim when making budget cuts in Texas than in other states.

One consolidation that looks like a done deal is the combining of the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. Senator Whitmire said the merger could save taxpayers perhaps as much as $200 million. Whitmire says the new agency, to be called the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, would be a much slimmer operation that the current youth commission, with its resources focused on incarcerating fewer teen-aged offenders in state-run lockups and more emphasis on community-based correction.

Community-based correction is what concerns me. While it might save the state money how much will it cost the community? State Representative Byron Cook said that the Sunset Commission's recommendation that will allow any closed youth commission lockups to be transferred to cities and counties, if they want them. That will cost cities and counties money, and who will pay for that? The local taxpayers of course, but that should not surprise anyone as history shows the Legislature routinely passes costs down to the local level to balance the state budget.

There are a number of options the state leaders have to balance the budget. Use of the rainy day fund, fee increases (fee is just a more politically correct way to spell tax), budget cuts, and consolidation of agencies are just a few of their options. We just need to be sure that whatever saving methods they utilize will not result in an increase in local taxes. Be assured when they promised no new taxes they were not necessarily referring to local taxes.

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