State leaders instruct agencies not to increase their budgets and to submit plans for cuts

Same old, same old. That’s what can be said for the traditional letter from state leadership to state agencies directing them to constrain their budget requests. In essence, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Legislative Budget Board (LBB)–primarily led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and retiring House Speaker Joe Straus–tell agencies not to spend more money than before, and to prepare items to cut. And those letters have had about the same directive as long as we can remember when they arrive before each new legislative session.

On Friday, the LBB and the Governor’s Office Budget and Policy Division issued its Legislative Appropriations Request policy letter, which represents the Legislature’s first step in developing a budget for 2020 and 2021 that will total well over $200 billion.

In general, the LAR policy letter directs each agency to make an initial “baseline” request for state funding that is no greater than the amount provided in the current 2018-2019 biennium. In other words, these initial requests should not consider population increase, the rising costs of goods and services or the inadequacy of the current appropriation to meet the needs of Texas residents. The letter provides important exceptions from this directive, including allowances for Foundation School Program and Teacher Retirement System pension funding requests to account for enrollment and payroll growth.

The LAR policy letter further directs each agency to prepare a set of funding requests for an amount 10 percent less than that provided in the current 2018-2019 biennium–in other words, 10 percent budget cuts. There is no directive to prepare a set of requests for any amount more than current budgeted amounts. Instead, any amount that an agency might deem essential to its work but that exceed the 2018-2019 budget are to be submitted as “Exceptional Item” requests and agencies are encouraged to identify other “lower-priority” programs that might be cut to offset such “exceptional” needs.

The letter is a painful reminder that our state leadership isn’t interested in even covering rising costs due to population growth, nor making investments in priorities for our state. Nevertheless, the real action on the budget will begin in the early stages of the next legislative session that starts in January. And to be sure, if there’s an interest in funding something, those holding the most power at the Capitol will find a way to do it.