Everything's Big in Texas, Including Austerity

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 1/21/2011 12:06:00 AM
Texans famously have a strong independent streak, hence the bumper sticker "Don't Mess With Texas." A few months ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry famously suggested that, given Washington's continuing profligacy, the state may consider seceding from the union to avoid saddling its future generations with such a horrendous debtload:
An animated Perry told the crowd at Austin City Hall -- one of three tea parties he was attending across the state -- that officials in Washington have abandoned the country's founding principles of limited government. He said the federal government is strangling Americans with taxation, spending and debt.

Perry repeated his running theme that Texas' economy is in relatively good shape compared with other states and with the "federal budget mess." Many in the crowd held signs deriding President Barack Obama and the $786 billion federal economic stimulus package. Later, answering news reporters' questions, Perry suggested Texans might at some point get so fed up they would want to secede from the union, though he said he sees no reason why Texas should do that.

"There's a lot of different scenarios," Perry said. "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."
In recent years, Texas has been less hard hit than many other states by the American-made housing crisis. Aside from having little to no statewide housing bubble, it has also been able to count on still-healthy energy revenues to (nearly) balance the books. However, all good things must come to and end, and even Texas' day of reckoning has been closing fast. Like the bedraggled finances of nearly every other state, Texas believes it is near hitting a wall.

It is here that we perhaps see the difference between Texas and most other states. While still obviously reluctant to raise taxes--this is the heartland of "Don't Tread On Me" after all--it's now shown that it's quite willing to go the starve the beast route of cutting expenditures before a budget crisis is upon it. Being proactive--how distinctly un-American. (Perhaps even to the point of seceding from the United States, eh?) The axe is falling particularly hard on education:
Texas lawmakers plan to unveil a $79.3 billion two-year general-fund budget that would cut spending by 10 percent from the current fiscal biennium and not raise taxes, according to documents outlining the proposal. The draft budget would slash education spending by 10 percent, to $44.3 billion, and health and human services by 7.7 percent, according to a copy of the plan. Leaders of the Texas House of Representatives will make the proposal public today.

The spending plan would cut education jobs by 2.4 percent to 85,119 while withholding funds for teacher incentive pay and pre-kindergarten programs. The draft projects a 160,000-student increase in public-school enrollment over the biennium, while cutting related expenses by 9.1 percent as property-tax receipts are projected to fall by more than $2 billion.

“We must cut spending to keep our economic engine on track,” Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, said yesterday in a speech following his inauguration for an unprecedented third term. “These tough times dictate government doing more with less,” he said.

The budget plan also would cut 13 percent from higher- education spending in the current biennium, to $13.6 billion. Public-school funding would fall $3.1 billion to $30.7 billion, according to the draft. It wouldn’t cover enrollment growth at community colleges and state universities while trimming financial aid by $431 million and eliminating funds for four community colleges.

Texas voters in November re-elected Perry and supported Republicans who pledged to cut spending and not raise taxes, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst said in his inaugural speech. Members of his party hold all statewide elective offices and control both the House and state Senate, where he is president.

The House proposal projects cutting 9,610 state jobs, or 4 percent of the total, over the next two fiscal years, to 231,574. Public-safety positions would be trimmed by 6.3 percent to 51,395, and health and human services employment would be reduced by 3 percent to 56,072.
And the coffers aren't filling up they used to even in Texas:
Legislators and Perry face a 2.9 percent decline in revenue for the two-year period that starts Sept. 1, according to Comptroller Susan Combs. Last week, she projected revenue available for general-fund spending would drop to $72.2 billion, after accounting for a $4.3 billion gap in the current biennium and $866 million in energy revenue to be placed in the state’s reserves. House lawmakers said their spending plan doesn’t rely on the projected $9.4 billion in reserves.

Perry reiterated his view that the state’s fiscal position will let it balance spending and revenue without raising taxes, in his speech yesterday in Austin, the state capital.
Well, good luck with the no new taxes pledge. (I don't think that strategy will hold out indefinitely if the economic situation doesn't improve there.) It's not quite British-style austerity which couples swingeing budget cuts with revenue-raising measures (like [eek!] higher taxes), but it's a start considering the context we have here. Still, I feel sad that Texas is cutting education funding now when the home institution of a co-author of mine, the University of Houston, is moving towards becoming one of the United States' elite or "Tier 1" research universities:
The University of Houston has been named a Tier One school for research activity, another step in its quest to become Texas' fourth "Tier One" university. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching moved the university on Tuesday from its previously ranked second-tier status to a Tier One school for "very high research activity." Rankings are updated every five years.

To reach an overall "Tier One" ranking like the University of Texas, Rice University and Texas A&M, the University of Houston needs to receive a "Tier One" designation from two other academic institutions. Texas wants several schools to achieve this status. University president Renu Khator told the Houston Chronicle the announcement is "good news" but the school needs to increase its graduation rate and better its reputation in Houston.
The UH will have to rely less on state handouts, but I guess that's true for most of the rest of us. Austin giveth, Austin taketh away.