Bill Murchison

Amazing what you can get done when you don't take government with, shall we say, the fullest seriousness and intensity.

For one thing, you can reduce state spending by nearly $10 billion over two years' time and then go home.

The Texas legislature achieved all this during the past weekend -- to the consternation of big-government fans, both at home and in far-flung outposts of bureaucracy like California and New York.

A couple of weeks ago, superior types were commenting archly on the flight of two score Texas Democratic legislators to Oklahoma for purposes of blocking a Republican-engineered congressional redistricting bill. The bill duly got blocked. To Austin the fugitives returned. Less widely noticed than the publicity stunt will be the subsequent feat the whole body performed: that of overcoming a revenue shortfall without a tax increase.

As the 2003 session was ending, the two houses passed, by margins roughly of two to one, a $117.4 billion budget that squares spending with anticipated revenue. (The comptroller of public accounts has the job of deciding whether they succeeded; so far, it looks mathematically OK.)

Liberals groused. "(W)e mark the passage in Texas," said one, "from compassionate conservatism to plain old mean-spiritedness." In the liberal lexicon, budget cutting is normally mean-spirited. In the present case, a state program for children's health -- enacted when the revenues were rolling into Austin -- was chopped back; as many as 161,000 fewer children than before will qualify. Less money is appropriated for textbooks. Teacher health insurance takes a hit, and 10,000 state employees lose their jobs.

Nobody likes this. When someone has a job and mouths to feed at home, you don't want to tell him to get lost, if it can be avoided. Nor, at another level, do you want to do less than grimace when Texas budget writers deliberately project a lower caseload for Medicaid: knowing as they must how much of a crap shoot that projection must rightly be considered. Powerball, the multi-state lottery -- that comes into the budget also, with $101 million in revenues guesstimated from this latest surrender to gambling mania. Whoever first likened sausage making and the legislative process knew exactly whereof he spoke.

Nonetheless, the point to notice is -- no new taxes. This was the promise Gov. Rick Perry made at the outset of the budgetary exercise. It was a worthwhile promise. Fans of government intervention are in the habit, at budget time, of pointing to the short-run pain involved in cutting expenditures. They rarely draw attention to the long-term pain involved in giving government a larger share of private resources on which to feast.

Pain, what pain? Doesn't government have the duty to pave over all the rough places in life? You get that impression from editorial pages like The New York Times' and political speeches of the sort at which Sen. Ted Kennedy is so practiced. This easy assumption has never been popular with Texans, which is why Texas liberals think of themselves as the nerds at the senior prom -- circling the dance floor in slack-jawed frustration while the jocks and homecoming queens have all the fun.

Another, much more urgent consequence of mistrusting government: Texas has no state income tax or any early prospect of one. The governmental institutions of Texas are set up to run as cheaply and unobtrusively as possible. A legislature constitutionally obligated to meet just five months out of every 24 isn't likely to get delusions about its duty to save humanity -- at the highest cost possible, natch. How unlike New York. How unlike California. How unlike, when you get down to it, Washington, D.C.

Congratulations of a reserved sort are due Texas' political leadership for a job of sausage making that affords the state a good chance of emerging quickly from economic hard times -- an easily better chance than all those tax-raising states and cities enjoy. This budget isn't a thing of beauty, but it's a joy for now.


Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
 
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