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Budget changes like weather

Last November, we published some wise counsel for new legislators. “Of the thousands of bills you will consider, the one that really matters is the general appropriations bill,” William P. Hobby Jr. advised this year’s crop of freshmen. “The bill decides how well Texas will be educated, regulated, imprisoned and medicated for the next two years.

“All the rest is just poetry,” Hobby declared.

If there was somebody who knows something about governing, it is Hobby. He was, after all, literally born to it. His father was Texas governor from 1917 to 1921, and his mother not only commanded the Women’s Army Corps (as it was then known) during World War II but was later the first secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Eisenhower administration. The younger Hobby served as Texas lieutenant governor from 1973 to 1991.

So, his words should echo through the two chambers of the current crop of legislators navigating their way through the conflicting demands on the money the state raises in taxes, fines and fees.

When you get right down to it, a government professor pronounced long ago, “Politics is about who gets what, when and how much of it.”

The Senate and House both issued their proposals for how to raise and spend money but at this stage of the game, Texas budgets are like Texas weather: If you don’t like it, hang around a minute, it’ll change.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs’ revenue estimate — the starting point for figuring out who gets what and how much of it — was $101 billion. That’s a big number, but it shrinks when you consider that legislators left a big Medicaid tab unpaid when the 2011 session adjourned. Cleaning up accounting tricks used to “balance” the budget — as the Texas Constitution requires — will take an estimated $7 billion bite out of the estimate. Both chambers proposed spending plans of about $89 billion. That leaves about $7 billion for legislators to argue about and the argument just got started.

Initial reactions to the budget proposals were appropriately restrained. One sign of progress was that the early budget proposals fund public school enrollment growth, though there are legitimate questions about whether the commitment will match need.

Last session, legislators did not fund enrollment growth for the first time in the state’s history, so we’ll call that progress for now and maybe even a hopeful sign.

Just how the school finance lawsuit being heard at the Travis County courthouse will affect deliberations — if at all — is still a big “X” factor. A ruling might come while the Legislature is in session, but it won’t be enforced until after the inevitable appeal.

The state’s economic growth triggers the need for water, transportation and, of course, education.

Dan Patrick, the state Senate’s new Education Committee chairman, wants to direct money toward charter schools. The Houston Republican’s proposal has drawn criticism from those who see it as a way to divert money away from the state’s public school districts.

Higher education leaders also are seeking increases to cover spiraling expenses of funding four-year and postgraduate educations. An educated work force is essential to maintaining the state’s economic momentum but so is providing water, power and a transportation system to move trade and tourism.

Though early in the process, there are some hopeful signs. Funding enrollment growth and an apparent willingness to at least steer away from accounting gimmicks to balance the budget are just two examples.

The Senate and House budget proposals will undergo a lot of revision between now and adjournment in May, but we’ve all seen worse starts.

Austin American-Statesman