When it comes to Susan Combs, the Big Bend rancher, I’m a big fan. She’s my neighbor out West, I run into her frequently, and she always has a kind word for this progressive Austinite who hangs out in her home town, and lives literally across a country back road from her ranch. Her ranch is so close, if my dog gets a tick, it’s probably off her cow.
Respect for the the land, enjoyment of this majestic scenery, and love of this small town and the people who live here – it is truly a non-partisan way of life here, undivided by notions of red versus blue. This is where people have strong opinions, but stay friendly. Republicans buy Democrats beers, cheer you on when something goes right, and commiserate with you when things don’t go your way. The Democrats do the same – everybody gets along.
However, when it comes to Susan Combs, the Republican Comptroller of Texas, I wish she’d get on the stick.
Everybody in Austin knows we have a multi-billion dollar shortfall to painfully deal with starting in January, perhaps exceeding $25 billion. Everybody in Austin understands that part of that shortfall is attributable to the structural deficit created by the Republican business margins tax. But few in Austin are willing to talk about any of that, including Susan Combs – the woman whose job it is to keep track of it all, measure it, make projections based on it, and ensure that legislators and ultimately the folks who pay the bills – taxpayers – are informed and up-to-date. They’re not.
Senator Kirk Watson has been trying for months to get people to talk about it, admit to it, do something about it. And he might as well be the guy who shows up at the family reunion asking questions about that second cousin who ain’t quite right in the head and who is probably institutionalized somewhere.
On Wednesday – the day after the election of course – they finally had a meeting on the issue. And that’s when the Comptroller bluntly admitted it:
“There is no cure in this report for the budget.”
What the report acknowledged, after months of reluctance to talk about it at all, is that the business margins tax is creating a structural deficit, and will continue to perpetuate one until after the Legislature fixes it.
Watson, who for months has been trying to get to the bottom of it, quickly got to the bottom of it:
“For some time, we as a state have masked structural deficits in our budget in recent years, and it’s time we stopped doing that. We’re going to find ourselves digging the state deeper and deeper into a hole.”
Well, duh. Or so you’d think. But just getting anybody in the Republican leadership to admit there’s a problem has been a months-long effort for Watson and others. Getting the Republican leadership to do anything about it will take more effort than that.
I suspect Step One in that effort will begin in earnest next Spring, when the legislature starts slicing and dicing the budget, and voters begin to understand for the first time what that means in their lives. Health and human services will go out the window, to the distance it’s legal to throw ‘em. Prisons will be closed, and the prisoners contained therein will be back on the streets. Critical services won’t be so critical anymore. School funding? We don’t need no stinkin’ schools. And forget about keeping up with infrastructure, roads and bridges and potholes and, well – just your standard issue stuff that Texans assume government exists to do.
When voters elected every Republican they could locate on a ballot, the day before Republicans finally admitted there’s a fundamental problem with the way they’ve managed those voters’ money, those voters weren’t signing up for what they’re about to get. They were just sending Washington a message.
Meanwhile, those freshly-elected Republicans were all crowing on election night that they’re going to do it all without raising your taxes. We will see, but please know this: a tuition increase is a tax increase, to the student who’s paying more, or not paying at all because he can’t afford it and quits school. An additional professional fee is a tax increase, to the professional just barely getting by in this economy.
Meanwhile, that big budget shortfall? We still don’t know how much it is. Susan Combs still won’t discuss that. Legislators like Watson get sent to the principal’s office just for asking.
Don’t you imagine any well-run business knows exactly what their financial position is at any given moment? Wasn’t it the Republicans who kept saying they want to run government more like a business? One has to wonder when they’re going to start implementing that big plan.
By the time Republicans get done with the state budget for the next two years, those voters will very likely be sending quite a different message altogether.