Apr 14 2011

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Hits and misses on the Appropriations Bills

From the desk of David Simpson
District 7 State Representative


About a week ago, the Texas House considered and passed three important appropriations bills concerning the remainder of the present fiscal period which ends on August 31(HB 4 and HB 275) and the next biennium which begins Sept. 1, 2011 and ends August 31, 2013 (HB 1). Given the importance of these bills for everyone in District 7, I would like to provide an explanation of the reasons behind my votes. Because of this, the narrative is longer than my normal weekly updates.
HB 4, which I supported, primarily ratified about $1.3 billion in reductions in spending which the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House and agencies statewide had already made. I supported an amendment by Rep. Phil King which implemented a hiring freeze until the end of the fiscal year. I filed an amendment to implement a mandatory furlough of one day a month for state employees making more than $50,000, excluding peace officers, firemen and EMS workers. However, I withdrew my amendment to support a similar amendment filed by Rep. Ken Paxton, which did not end up passing. The bill itself passed by a vote along party lines.
The House also passed HB 275 with near unanimous support including mine. It authorized the use of approximately $3.1 billion of the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF) to make up for a current shortfall of sales tax revenue caused by the recession. This use of the ESF fits the original intended purpose of the fund.
In preparation for debating and amending HB 1, the budget for the next two years, my staff and I sought to identify programs and funds that we believed should be eliminated or reduced as much as possible before cutting funding for education and the weak among us. Among others that were considered, we ended up focusing our efforts on identifying non-essential program funding: $3.5 million from the Commission on the Arts, $32 million from Film and Music Marketing, $151 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, $140.5 million from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, $43.5 million from Economic Development and Tourism, $1 million from the Board of Professional Geoscientists, and $500,000 from Parks and Wildlife land acquisition. We prepared amendments to divert all of these funds to what we considered higher priorities: The Department of Aging and Disability Services’ (DADS) Community-Based Alternatives program, technical and vocational training provided by our community colleges, and Parks and Wildlife maintenance and operations. After preparing the amendments, I decided not to file the two largest, because I was advised they would fail due to restrictions placed upon the Enterprise and Emerging Technology Funds. Learning this I proceeded to double check and revise the other amendments to make sure they would not be taken down on points of order.
Early in the morning, I laid out my first amendment to divert $3.5 million of non-dedicated general revenue funds from the Commission on the Arts to DADS’ Community-Based Alternatives program. Reactions from members of both parties ranged widely—some were highly uncivil while others were very encouraging. The vote broke party lines and was narrowly passed 67-61 with 17 present but not voting. To me it was simply the right thing to do. When we are faced with the choice of shutting down nursing homes or reducing funding for the Commission on the Arts, the elderly must come first. Furthermore, the arts have primarily been supported by private patrons for most of history, not taxation. And I do endeavor to support the arts privately. My family has owned and operated an art gallery and has promoted the arts for decades.
I laid out my second amendment close to midnight after revising and refining it several times during the day to make sure it was in order. Originally, the amendment would have diverted all $32 million of funding for Film and Music Marketing to Public Community Colleges Vocational / Technical Education. However, I reduced the amount based on the Legislative Budget Board’s (LBB) written statement that only $10 million could be diverted and would result in “no cost” to the bill (i.e., decrease funding for the treasury). Then I had the LBB give me the amount that could be diverted from Economic Development and Tourism which was $5.9 million out of $43.5 million. Although the amounts were much smaller, I proceeded to redraft my amendment based on the principle that corporate subsidies and incentives should be cut as much as possible prior to cutting education for our children and future workforce. Later in the day a measure failed to fund rural libraries, which had been zeroed out in the HB 1 budget, so I revised my amendment again to divert $3 million to libraries as well as $12.9 million to community colleges.
However, while laying out the amendment, Rep. Dukes (D-Austin) questioned the amount which I could divert from the Film and Music Marketing program, even though I had checked the figures multiple times with the legislative council and with the LBB and had submitted them to the parliamentarian. The LBB stood by the numbers until, in a closed door meeting, it changed its mind. After having written confirmation that this money could be diverted, it appeared to me that the establishment decided that these corporate welfare programs should not be on the table for discussion. Frustrated yet still determined, I amended my amendment again to only divert the $5.9 million from Economic Development and Tourism to community colleges and libraries. It was getting late at this point, so the Speaker adjourned the session until Sunday at 4 p.m.
On Saturday, wondering about the closed door meeting the night before, I called the Comptroller, Susan Combs, to confirm the propriety of the decision. She assured me that only $22 million of the $32 million would “cost the bill” and that I could move the remaining $10 million to any “bucket” that I desired. She also affirmed that of the $43.5 million in Economic Development and Tourism, she thought $3.5 million was available to move. She then set up a meeting with the Speaker’s office and her office on Sunday afternoon prior to the convening of the legislature at 4 p.m.
Immediately prior to the legislature being called to order Sunday afternoon, I was informed by both the LBB and the Comptroller’s staff that I could not divert the $10 million from Film and Music Marketing. A few minutes later they said I could not divert any of the funds from Economic Development and Tourism. Despite written assurances and published figures of available general revenue, this attempt also died in closed door discussions. My effort to exhaust corporate incentives and subsidies before cutting education and nursing homes was thwarted again.  This experience showed that the system is designed to protect itself and that it is easier to cut funds for education and social welfare than for corporate welfare.
Although I am in favor of cutting spending and balancing the budget without raising taxes and without using the Economic Stabilization Fund for planned recurring expenses, HB 1 did not cut the most obvious non-essential programs. It preserved more than $400 million in corporate subsidies, incentives, and marketing while cutting 37% from the Dept. of Aging and Disabilities as well as a substantial amount from education. So in the end I could not in good conscience support HB 1. To use Rep. Sylvester Turner’s words, it was “not a budget worthy of the Texas Legislature.” Such a budget, in my opinion, would have eliminated or at least drastically reduced corporate welfare before substantial cuts to social welfare, community colleges, K-12 education, and libraries were implemented. I fully support free market business-friendly policies. But, our government was instituted to promote the general welfare instead of handing out favors to particular industries in a few concentrated areas. For this reason I voted in protest of the system and against HB 1.
Other Legislative Matters
I laid out two more of my bills protecting dignity in travel before the Transportation Committee. The presentation was well received. House Bill 1938 prohibits the operation of virtual strip search scanners in Texas airports without either probable cause or immediate express informed consent. House Concurrent Resolution 80 expresses strong opposition to the Transportation Security Administration’s unreasonable searches. About two hours of testimony was given in favor of these bills and none in opposition.
Wise Words
“…a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government…” Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, Wednesday, March 4, 1801
Thank you for your prayers and for your suggestions. Your input is always welcome. Much work still remains. Please continue to pray that I may do what is right.
For Texas and Liberty,
David Simpson

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