The framers of the Texas Constitution envisioned a citizen legislature that would adhere to the principles of limited government. The Legislature would meet every other year for 140 days and then go home to live and work under the laws they had passed. There was only one must-do assignment — to pass a two-year budget.
The budget is the most important thing legislators do every session. It sets the priorities for our state — providing funds for education, public safety and criminal justice, transportation, health and human services, natural resources and economic development.
There has been much discussion in the news lately about the fact that our revenue won’t meet our current expenses during the next budget cycle covering the fiscal year that begins on Sept. 1, 2011 and ends on Aug. 31, 2013. While the prospect of a large revenue shortfall is frightening, an understanding of the budgeting process will help citizens follow the debate.
As a member of Senate Finance, the budget-writing committee for the Texas Senate, I have already participated in meetings on the upcoming budget. Earlier this year, we instructed agencies to trim state funds in their current fiscal year budgets by 5 percent. Then we instructed agencies to submit budget requests for the next biennium that assume this 5 percent cut, as well as identify ways to trim their state funding by an additional 10 percent.
These budget requests have been the subject of public hearings by the Legislative Budget Board, a panel of elected officials and staff who will compile the budget requests into legislation that will be filed in January.
There will be many more opportunities for the public to weigh in on the state’s spending priorities as budget proposals are heard by the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees. The budget process can be followed at www.capitol.state.tx.us and www.lbb.state.tx.us.
Once the budget bill passes the committees, there will be extensive floor debate in both chambers. When the House and Senate each have passed their proposals, the differences will be worked out by a conference committee of Senators and Representatives appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and House Speaker.
The last important steps are certification by the State Comptroller, who must determine that Texas will have sufficient revenue to cover the appropriations, and signing by the Governor, who has line-item veto authority. That means he can strike certain items from the budget without having to veto the entire bill.
Having gone through this process in 2003 when the state faced a $10 billion shortfall, I can attest to how difficult it will be to decide where to reduce. That past experience will help us next session.
As tough as it was, that 2003 budget led to fiscal strength for Texas and positioned our economy to weather the economic downturn better than most states. Heading into last session Texas was one of only six states with positive cash flow.
Next session will bring renewed focus on the state’s core responsibilities and functions. Our foresight and discipline in setting aside money for emergencies in the Rainy Day Fund will help us balance the budget without raising taxes.
There is a reason why Texas has accounted for 79 percent of private sector job growth over the last five years. I will work to craft a budget that meets our responsibilities while protecting the economic formula that has proven so successful.
Senator Nelson, R-Flower Mound, represents Senate District 12, which includes portions of Tarrant and Denton counties. She is Chairman of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee.