Comptroller estimates $101.4 billion for general spending for new lege


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

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Posted on January 7, 2013 at 6:52 PM

Updated Monday, Jan 7 at 7:21 PM

AUSTIN -- Surrounded by charts describing Texas' economic rebound, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs announced Monday lawmakers in the 83rd Texas Legislature will have a lot more to work with this year than last time.

"It's been very, very robust across a number of sectors," said Combs, who attributed much of the growth in state revenues to an oil and gas industry that has been booming despite an overall decline in oil prices.

The comptroller's biennial revenue estimate predicts the upcoming session will have $101.4 billion for general spending over the next two years, an estimate up nearly $30 billion from the $72.2 billion estimate handed to lawmakers in January 2011 that served as the baseline for the state budget over the 2012-13 biennium.

The new number includes $8.8 billion left over from the last session, which some lawmakers have argued led to cuts in areas such as education that in hindsight were unnecessary.

"We do have the opportunity this session to undo some of the harm that was done two years ago," Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) told KVUE Friday. "It turns out that cutting $5 billion from public education two years ago wasn't just bad policy, wasn't just bad for education, it was totally based on a fallacy. We ended up not needing to make those cuts."

"I would suspect there's not really anybody at the Federal Reserve or in Washington or any of the sort of large scale predictors who saw the scope of this recession," Combs said Monday in defense of her underestimating revenues from 2012-13. "It's our policy, however, always to be careful and prudent and conservative and we try the best that we can."

Some worry the extra money still may not be enough to restore those cuts under current formula funding.

"This amount of money that we heard about today doesn't quite give legislators enough to address that," Senior Budget Analyst Eva De Luna Castro with the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) told KVUE Monday. "So using the 'rainy day fund,' in addition to what general revenue is, that becomes a key part of this."

"Today Texas lawmakers heard they will have $101.4 billion in general revenue to work with when writing the 2014-2015 state budget," CPPP Executive Director F. Scott McCown said in a statement Monday. "However, $5 billion is needed for the Medicaid IOU, leaving $96.4 billion to barely continue the current barebones budget and leave in place the devastating 2011 cuts to education, health care and other areas of critical need."

In the same report, Combs estimates the Economic Stabilization Fund known as the "rainy day fund" will top $11.8 billion over the next two years, just short of its $13.5 billion cap.

While the overall numbers are much more promising this time around, conservatives warn against loosening the state's pocketbook too much.

"Today’s revenue estimate is more evidence that we made the right decisions two years ago by budgeting carefully to meet the challenges of the national recession," Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a statement. "The Texas formula of low taxes, reasonable regulations, fair courts and a quality workforce is the best way to continue creating jobs and growing our economy. Even as we head into the 83rd Legislative Session with higher revenues, we still need to focus on separating our wants from our needs, and continue to follow the conservative fiscal principles that have led to Texas’ ongoing success and will keep Texas strong."

"We don't know what the future will hold, and we need to be sure that the state's business is stable, that they can continue to fund programs that they put in place," said Talmadge Heflin, fiscal policy director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "So if you go on a spending binge and you have a cooling of the economy, then you're not able to fund what you've promised the people."

The opening shots in a budget battle that will officially begin Tuesday.