|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Texas faces a budget crisis of truly daunting proportions, with lawmakers likely to cut sacrosanct programs such as education for the first time in memory and to lay off hundreds if not thousands of state workers and public university employees.
Texas' GOP leaders, their eyes on the Nov. 2 election, have played down the problem's size, even as the hole in the next two-year cycle has grown in recent weeks to as much as $24 billion to $25 billion. That's about 25 percent of current spending.
The gap is now proportionately larger than the deficit California recently closed with cuts and fee increases, its fourth dose of budget misery since September 2008.
Against the backdrop of the acrimonious campaign between Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Democratic challenger Bill White, Texas' top elected and budget officials have guarded even more tightly than usual against leaks of information. But bad numbers continue to dribble out in legislative testimony and agency reports.
The bottom line: Public schools, college students and government employees, not just poor and needy Texans, might very well lose money, grants, benefits and even livelihoods during and after next year's legislative session.
"They'll have to cut," said former Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, the House's budget chief during the last budget meltdown, in 2003. "When you look at the big numbers, I just don't think there's any way that you make it match without making some reduction in education, both higher [education] and public education," or grades K-12.
Even in the budget crises of the late 1980s, 1991 and 2003, Texas never cut state funding of public schools.
But declines in revenues, property values and federal Medicaid help have added between $3 billion and $4 billion this month to a late-August guess that the two-year shortfall could top $20 billion.
Ongoing expenses, including property tax cuts passed four years ago, cost between $95 billion and $100 billion in state funds, now that a federal flow of stimulus cash is winding down.
Dale Craymer, president of the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, said next year very well could bring unprecedented retrenchments, including layoffs or furloughs.
"This budget's not going to be solved with a single magic bullet," said Craymer, a top budget adviser to former Govs. Ann Richard and George W. Bush. "It's going to be solved by a number of very hard decisions that cause a lot of pain in a lot of different areas. So furloughs may indeed be part of the solution," though even far-ranging layoffs of state employees wouldn't close the budget gap by themselves, he said.
The options are few when it comes to finding $25 billion in the state's budget. Texas already ranks 50th nationally in per-capita state spending, so big cuts will have to come from essential services.
Teachers and welfare workers are paid mostly from local and federal money, so cutting those positions won't net much savings. To give you an idea how difficult this could be, we took an imaginary whack at state government and programs.
You could eliminate
state government functions
to save ...
•$2.4 billion (22 entire state government agencies, including the offices of the attorney general and comptroller)
•$437 million (state judiciary)
•$875 million (oversight of environmental regulations, water control and parks)
•$587 million (business and economic development programs)
•$312 million (31 regulatory agencies, including those overseeing insurance, racing and utilities)
•$354 million (the Legislature: budget planning, legal advice and staff)
And you could ...
•Fire half the prison, parole and probation officers to save $1.4 billion.
•Eliminate college financial aid/scholarships to save $1.2 billion.
•Spend half of the state's rainy day fund to raise $4.5 billion.
•Eliminate all grants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to save $131 million.
But after all that, you'd have saved just $12.2 billion, barely half of what probably will be needed.