As of February, the US is in a recession, and Texas is no different. While the cause is different than prior recessions, people’s financial struggles are the same.
With the voluntary social distancing and forced disruptions by state and local governments due to COVID-19, economic activity has collapsed, people have lost their jobs, and employers have lost their business. This economic recession means the state of Texas may face a shortfall in tax receipts compared with prior projections.
For example, the Texas Comptroller notes in a recent report that sales tax collections are the state’s biggest source of tax receipts, and they have declined greatly this year as many Texans are out of work, stuck at home, or simply adjusting their spending habits. The Texas budget will face a drop in oil-related taxes as well, as oil prices have fluctuated drastically in recent months.
When the Texas Legislature passed the 2020-21 budget last year, they could not have known the novel coronavirus and its effects. Now, Texas leaders must take action to adapt in these hard times.
In order to deal with a likely shortfall in tax receipts given the state’s balanced budget amendment, the state government can usually:
1) Raise taxes,
2) Use funds in the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF), and/or
3) Lower government spending.
Raising taxes would only make the problems Texans face worse by raising the cost of living at a time when they’re already struggling financially.
Using the ESF is a viable option. However, with an expected total of $9 billion in the fund going into the 2021 Legislative Session and a sufficient fund balance needed for a high credit rating, there may not be too much to tap.
Therefore, the most responsible choice is to decrease government spending. Texas leaders have experience with this solution, and it can help to reignite the dynamic Texas economy.
In 2003, The Honorable Talmadge Heflin helped to navigate a $10 billion shortfall in tax receipts as Chairman of the Texas House Committee on Appropriations. Describing the success in 2003, Chairman Heflin wrote, “we dealt with the shortfall through targeted budget cuts and avoided raising taxes on already hard-pressed Texas families.” This is sage advice, and we would do well to follow it.
Then-Texas Governor Rick Perry adopted a budgeting strategy called “zero-based budgeting” that encouraged responsible spending. Further, the heads of state agencies and legislators worked together to find workable solutions for the budget gap. For example, 12 state agencies were consolidated into 5 agencies, and this effort saved taxpayers $1 billion.
Solutions are possible if our leaders are willing to work hard to make necessary changes.
While the big three Texas leaders have asked for some state agencies to find savings of 5% to cover some losses, the Foundation has called for all state agencies to find 15% in savings so there is shared sacrifice with Texas families, and their tax burden won’t increase.
There is a fourth consideration this time around as the U.S. Congress has provided federal funds to Texas through the CARES Act with $8.3 billion to state government and $3.1 billion to local governments. This means even more money is sloshing around, but the Legislature must not let federal funds be counted as permanent funds to the budget like some did in 2011 and then consider there to be cuts to government education or other programs when those funds dried up. There weren’t cuts to government education then but that false claim continues to scare people.
We must work to rejuvenate the Texas economy and the lives and livelihoods of Texans by ending the government’s shutdown of society, rein in wasteful spending, and permanently roll back unnecessary regulations so families can flourish.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.