How big is the hole, Susan?

You’d think with all of the talk about the budget and the projected shortfall, we’d have heard an opinion from our State Comptroller, Susan Combs, as to just how things look right now. Especially given that Governor Perry has publicly dismissed the $18 billion figure that House Speaker Joe Straus and Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts has cited, you’d think she’d want to weigh in. You’d be wrong about that.

Comptroller Susan Combs, the state’s chief financial officer, has done little to offer a big-picture public assessment of the revenue outlook as the November elections and 2011 legislative session approach. And trying to guess just how large a budget shortfall the state faces has become a popular parlor game at the Capitol.

Seeking clarity, state Sen. Kirk Watson sent Combs a letter last week asking that she update her official estimate of how much money the state will collect during the current two-year budget cycle. He also asked that she offer a forecast of the state’s revenue outlook over the next two years.

“A private business of any size should never fly into a fiscal storm blindly, and neither should Texans or their elected officials,” wrote Watson, D-Austin. “Without a clear picture of the state’s financial condition, we find ourselves in the situation of working on a problem that has not yet been actually defined.”

Watson’s request for Combs to speak up on the budget comes as Gov. Rick Perry, who is campaigning for re-election on an economic climate that encourages job creation, has sought to downplay talk of a coming budget crisis.


Despite the national economic downturn that came to the forefront in the fall of 2008 and began to visibly hit Texas in 2009, Combs has not updated her January 2009 revenue estimate. That estimate said that, during the fiscal year that began in September 2009 and ended last week, state sales tax collections would increase slightly compared with the previous year.

In fact, during the first 11 months of the fiscal year, sales tax collections fell more than $1 billion short of Combs’ projections. The sales tax is the state’s largest revenue source.

Here’s Sen. Watson’s letter. I have to believe that if the Democrats had managed to find a semi-decent candidate to run against Combs this cycle (in other words, someone not named Fred Head), Combs would be under a lot more pressure to get off her tuchus and tell us what’s going on. I will note that eight years ago, which is the last time we were going through this kind of budget crisis, then-Comptroller Carole Keeton then-Rylander spoke publicly about the shortfall. Of course, she later changed her tune about the size of the shortfall, but at least she didn’t have to be prodded to speak about it. Those were the days. BOR has more.

UPDATE: Here’s part of the answer:

Texas’ sales tax collections closed the budget year short $1.5 billion, or 6.6 percent, of the projected total for 2010, according to figures released Thursday by state Comptroller Susan Combs.

To hit Combs’ revenue estimate for the two-year budget, sales tax collections would have to increase 15 percent over the $19.6 billion brought in during 2010.

But if August is any indication, a sharp rebound is not imminent.

Last month’s sales tax collections came in at $1.8 billion, up 0.8 percent compared with the same month a year earlier and the fifth consecutive month of positive yet tepid growth.

“Overall, state sales tax collections appear to have stabilized, but solid growth has not yet resumed,” Combs said.

The state could end the 2010-11 budget a year from now with $3.6 billion less in sales tax revenues than assumed, according to revenue projections Combs recently provided to bond rating agencies.

It ain’t pretty, that’s for sure.

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