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State budget situation not quite as awful as feared

Still bad, but could be worse.

Despite “historic declines,” state lawmakers will have more money to work with in the upcoming legislative session than Comptroller Glenn Hegar expected over the summer, he said Monday. But Hegar did not outline specifics as state coffers continue to suffer from the economic recession spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sales tax revenues, by far the largest part of the state budget, fell by 4.8% in the second half of the 2020 fiscal year compared with the same stretch last year, Hegar said. It was a much softer hit than he anticipated, thanks to Texans staying home and spending money on “staycations instead of vacations.”

Other revenue streams, such as taxes related to alcohol, hotel occupancy, and oil and gas, were down more than 40% in the same period this year compared with last, Hegar told lawmakers Monday during a Legislative Budget Board meeting at the Capitol.

“Revenues remain down significantly relative to a year ago, and well below what we expected to collect when the Legislature wrapped up work on the budget in 2019,” Hegar said.

Legislative budget writers decide how much money will be allocated for large state expenses like how much school districts get, how well health care programs are funded, which transportation projects get built and what amount state law enforcement gets based on how much the comptroller says will be available during the next two-year budget cycle, which runs from September 2021 through August 2023. Hegar will likely unveil that number as the session nears.

Hegar, whose office is in charge of collecting taxes owed to the state of Texas, last formally updated lawmakers in July, when he wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers projecting the state’s current two-year budget to be roughly $11.5 billion less than originally estimated. That would put the state on track to end the biennium, which runs through August 2021, with a deficit of nearly $4.6 billion, Hegar wrote in July.

A few points:

– Let’s hope Hegar is a better revenue estimator than Susan Combs was. Her epic misfire in 2011 led to far more cuts being made than were needed.

– There are and will be plenty of stories written about how this is now the time that the Lege will consider marijuana legalization or casino gambling, because those things generate revenue that could be used to help stave off the deficit. The bit about gambling has been trotted out reliably every cycle since at least 2003, and it has never been true, in large part because the people who oppose expanded gambling still oppose it in deficit situations, and they remain with sufficient power to block it. I expect the same to be true for pot – it will happen when and if there is sufficient political support for it, and the budget situation will not be a factor.

– Also, too, people like Greg Abbott and especially Dan Patrick don’t want new revenue sources. They are perfectly happy to cut things out of the budget. Deficit situations are great opportunities for them.

– We could avoid all this if there is a federal COVID relief package targeted at cities and states. That’s only going to have a chance of happening if Dems win the two Georgia Senate runoffs, and even then it may be dicey. But it is a thing that Abbott et al could advocate for if they chose.

– Oh, yeah, the Rainy Day Fund. We didn’t use it in 2011 because Rick Perry decided that the fund, which was explicitly set up for the purpose of blunting the effect of economic downturns – hence the actual name “Economic Stabilization Fund” – was actually for natural disasters instead. I feel pretty confident that Greg Abbott will declare that COVID is no reason to tap the fund, and in the absence of a legislative majority to dip into it, it ain’t happening. (It’s possible some small amount may be used, if budget writers feel sufficiently desperate, and the nihilist caucus can be tamed or bought off. Don’t bet on it, that’s my advice.)

We’ll know more in January. Hope for the best. The Chron has more.

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