You could tell the minute Susan Combs announced the new revenue projection for the biennium, because you could almost feel the collective hand-wringing that started in the offices of editorial boards, governmental agencies and school districts, special-interest groups and public-employee unions, and lobbyists across Texas. Then the pundits like Paul Krugman chimed-in with his typical “sky-is-falling-on-conservatives” shallow thinking (it still amazes me that this shallow of a thinker won a Nobel Prize). But, at the risk of being accused of living in another dimension, I want to pose a different question from a different perspective.
What if $72.2 billion is enough money to pay for the state’s discretionary obligations related to education, health care, the criminal-justice system and transportation? What if the problem isn’t the lack of revenue, but rather the costs that have accumulated and grown within the way we have structured our government? What if real zero-based budgeting, coupled with innovative coordination with local and county governments and the private sector to reduce redundancies, could lead to a more efficient and effective use of the $72.2 billion to provide the services that government must provide under our state constitution to promote the continued growth and vitality of Texas?
Our Republican Representatives and Senators, together with our Republicans throughout the Executive and Judicial Branches and leaders at the local and county levels of government throughout the state, have a lot of hard choices to make during this Session, and I don’t want to increase the pressure on them to accomplish more than we can humanly expect from one two-year cycle, even if we kept the part-time legislature in a full-time Special Session. But, I am asking them to never forget that this election gave them a majority they probably never will have again, which gives them a once in a generation opportunity to challenge every old assumption, to look at the structural labyrinth that has been created to deliver state services that are often supplemental to services provided by other levels of government or the private sector, to look at how we compensate public employees (especially their retirement plans), and to start the process of dismantling the labyrinth and re-organizing government into a properly limited, yet effective operation. Who knows, we just might be able to provide more effective education, mental and physical health care, and transportation for a lot less than what the system is currently absorbing from our tax dollars.
How could you even start such a task? Here are just three possible steps that could be implemented to start the process:
- As each department and legislative committee draws its projected budget, create three versions: 1. one that funds the government as it is currently structured, with the attendant percentage changes that will be needed to avoid new taxes; 2. another that funds the tasks of these departments and agencies efficiently and effectively within the revenue projection, but without regard to the structure of departments and agencies that current statutes or the state constitutional provisions might require; and 3. a version of the second type of budget that shows adjustments that could be made if our current immigration laws were properly enforced. The first budget could be used for funding the government over the next biennium, while the second and third versions could be used for creating a re-organization plan to be implemented as soon as it is practical to do so.
- Oversight committees should engage with counterparts on the city, county and school district levels of government, and with key private-sector organizations to review both versions of the budget to determine where there are current redundancies in administration, projects and service among the different levels of government and with services provided by the private sector, which could be fixed without a referendum or constitutional amendment, and how services could be provided even more effectively and efficiently if you were coordinating from scratch; and
- Convert all public defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans for new hires or for newly elected officials, and re-negotiate all public union contracts to allow for pay reductions rather than layoffs.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the cornerstone was actually laid and the process started in a day. If we are going to maximize the historic opportunity presented by the November election, let’s lay the cornerstone and get started on the construction.