Impact of Massive Proposed State Budget Cuts Is Sinking In—How Low Can Texas Go?

The potential impact of massive spending cuts envisioned in House Bill 1, the first draft of the state budget plan for 2012-2013, is beginning to sink in across the state. A proposed cut of $10 billion in state aid to school districts has some of them already adjusting their own local budget planning for next school year to fit a “worst-case” scenario, as one superintendent put it.

For example, the biggest school district in the state’s capital city, Austin ISD, has responded with a draft plan to cut 350 teaching jobs and a third of the district’ librarians, and that is only one small fraction of the overall damage contemplated. Education Austin, Texas AFT’s Austin ISD affiliate, is responding with alternative proposals that would forestall such damaging losses of the very education employees Austin students depend upon for learning success.

Many other Texas AFT affiliates are in the midst of similar local struggles. Meanwhile, in some districts, superintendents are taking a different tack, vowing not to alter their local budget plans in response to what one termed a “shock-and-awe” state budget proposal that is “not workable, not plausible, and not in the best interest of Texas, today or tomorrow.”

That sentiment has echoed this week across most of the editorial pages of major state newspapers. The Dallas Morning News, for example, said the legislature would do more harm than good unless it revises this budget and takes a more “balanced” approach “that relies upon budget cuts, closing tax loopholes, and using the Rainy Day Fund.” The News editorial writers reproached Gov. Rick Perry for saying that “lawmakers shouldn’t use any of the $9.4 billion in the Rainy Day Fund.” In contrast, said the News, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, House Appropriations chair Jim Pitts, House Public Education Committee chair Rob Eissler, and Senate Education Committee chair Florence Shapiro all now “want to tap the fund to help offset the gap.”

As some other newspaper commentators noted, there was nary a word in Gov. Rick Perry’s celebratory inaugural address about the importance of adequately funding essential investments like public education for Texas schoolchildren—even though Perry knew full well that the budget to be released later on Tuesday, during the inaugural festivities, would contain harsh cuts affecting public and higher education and health care. There was just this:  “As Texans, we always take care of the least among us,” Perry said. “We will protect them, support them and empower them, but cannot risk the future of millions of taxpayers in the process.”

It’s hard to see how cutting $1,000 per pupil per year from school spending will “take care of the least among us.” The governor also is dead wrong to suggest there’s a conflict between providing adequately for such core services as public education and the long-term interests of Texas taxpayers. It’s the failure to invest adequately now in public education that threatens the future economic well-being of our state. That’s not just speculation; it’s backed up by rigorous analysis by experts such as former state demographer Steve Murdock. Noting the rapid growth in the percentage of Texans from disadvantaged backgrounds, Murdock has said:  “If we don’t change the socioeconomic factors that go with the demographic factors, it is hard to see anything but a Texas that is poorer and less competitive in the future than it is today.” The single best tool we have to alter those socioeconomic factors and create a more prosperous, more competitive Texas is public education.

Texas AFT stands with dozens of other organizations and groups in the new Texas Forward coalition—and with millions of fellow Texans–in calling on lawmakers to take a balanced approach to the revenue shortfall, including full use of the Rainy Day Fund and new revenue. Only with this balanced approach can the legislature speed up the economic recovery and set the stage for long-term economic growth, by making necessary investments now in public education, children’s health care, and similar essential public services.