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First, you have to admit you have a problem

Peggy Fikac has a frustrating conversation with State Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden. I say frustrating because I know he knows what the correct answer to this is, and I also know he’s never going to say it out loud:

Q: When you look at the challenges that are facing you, is the problem the recession or is there a systemic problem with the way the budget is structured year after year?

A: Well, how about yes and no? I think last session if you really go through all the numbers, we used about $6 billion of the stimulus money to balance our budget … I think it was a smart thing to do in the context of we didn’t use the rainy day fund to balance our budget, or we didn’t make Draconian cuts to balance our budget. Well, depending on how much federal assistance we have next session, we’ll be faced again with the same decision: Should we make cuts? Should we use the rainy day fund? Or should we use federal funding stimulus money?

Ogden is a budget writer. He knows fully well what the effect was of the 2006 property tax cut – how much revenue was forsaken, how much was supposed to come in to replace it, how far short of projections those other sources fell, and how much general revenue had to be tapped to make up the difference. He also knows that this isn’t going to change by itself. If we can’t say what the problem is, we have no hope of fixing it. And one consequence of that is it means we can’t fix some other problems as well.

Q: On another financial challenge you’ve already been looking at, four in 10 Texas school districts are using reserve funds to help balance their current budgets. Public school enrollment is growing, with most of that growth coming from low-income families. Another school finance lawsuit may be filed to force changes. Do you think the Legislature will change the school funding system in 2011 to give school districts access to more money to educate the growing population?

A: I don’t know. There’s not more money out there, so any changes in the school finance system would have to be made in ways that use the money we do have more efficiently, more equitably and maybe reduces — this term hasn’t been used before in school finance, but I think it’s relevant — the diversions. … I think there is some merit in looking at whether a lot of that money that’s out of the Foundation School Program should actually be in it, but at the end of the day, this is not magic. No one should expect next session large increases in funding for anything. And so you’re going to have to tighten your belt.

Of course there’s more money out there, if we’re willing to admit the reason why we’re so strapped to begin with. But apparently we’re not, or at least Sen. Ogden is not, and so we have to pretend that we are unable to adequately fund our schools instead of giving the honest answer that we don’t consider it a sufficient priority. One bit of dishonesty leads directly to another.

Having said all that, I will give Sen. Ogden credit for this:

Q: You have called the state tax system “rickety.” What is the biggest problem with it?

A: It’s rickety in the sense that the sales tax laws are very confusing, and there are more exemptions than there are items subject to the sales tax, and we would do ourselves some good if we went in there and cleaned up that statute. … I personally think if we had a broader-base, lower-rate sales tax it would improve things in Texas. But there’s a key in there. I mean, if you broaden the base, you can lower the rate. I’m not trying to raise taxes.

If Sen. Ogden is sincere in his desire to hunt sacred cows, then at least some good may come out of the next legislative session. At the very least, this mindset makes it harder for the Dan Patricks of the world to push their maniacal property tax for sales tax swap. It’s a small step but it’s an important one, given where we were on this as recently as 2005.

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