Positive revenue forecast means we can do more for education
By Sen. Carlos Uresti
House and Senate budget writers unveiled their starting-point budgets for 2014-15 in week two of the legislative session. While this first peek was somewhat disappointing because many of the cuts imposed last time are still there, it is early in the legislative process, and I am hopeful that some of those funds — particularly for public education — will be restored.
The 2011 session began in a deep financial hole, with the comptroller forecasting that we would be some $26 billion short of the amount needed to meet then-current needs and account for the growth in public school enrollment, Medicaid caseloads, and other programs over the coming two years.
To close that deficit, a majority in the Legislature voted to cut public education and defer more than $5 billion in Medicaid costs. Fast-forward to the current session, and it's quite a different story. When the 2013 session began, the comptroller announced there would be $101.4 billion in general revenue available for the next two-year budget, almost 12.5 percent more than the current spending plan.
With a revenue forecast like that, there was good reason to expect that education funds would be restored. But in the budget overviews unveiled last week, the cuts imposed last time were still in place — not just for public education, but higher ed, public health, public safety, and other vital programs.
But there are reasons to be hopeful. These early budget proposals leave about $5.5 billion unspent, and I believe school administrators, teachers, parents, and other advocates of public education can make a great case for giving more money to schools. I encourage them to make their voices heard as the session goes forward.
I also believe that we can give schools what they need without going on a "spending spree." Two years ago, we got a harsh lesson in frugality. We all want the state to live within its means, but the Legislature also needs to recognize the value of education and its vital importance to Texas' future.
Those House and Senate committees will soon begin to write detailed budget plans that will be reconciled into a single bill that lawmakers will vote on in May. I am hopeful that the final product will adequately provide for the school children of Texas, while maintaining the restraint that allows us to balance the budget every time the Legislature meets. Let's hope the children come first!
Honoring and saying goodbye to good friends
The second week of the session was an emotional one for me and my colleagues in the Senate, as we honored the longest serving member, Sen. John Whitmire; and paid homage to the late Sen. Mario Gallegos — both of Houston and best friends.
Whitmire, just 23 years old when he first took his seat in the Legislature in 1973, makes the official motion to adjourn each day and is charged with other ceremonial duties. But his main role can't be found in any rulebook.
As the guardian of Senate decorum, he has made it his job over the years to teach new members — whether Democrat or Republican — that the Senate is a place of respect and tradition; that its rules and its members must be held in esteem by the people for it to accomplish anything.
On Wednesday, we paid tribute to Sen. Gallegos, who died in October at age 62. A former firefighter, Gallegos was a big man with a great sense of humor, but also a tenacious and unrelenting champion for people who needed a voice at the table of government.
The accolades for Whitmire and Gallegos — from both sides of the aisle — showed why the Senate is such a special place. Regardless of our political philosophies and the fact that we are often adversaries who engage in heated debate, at the end of the day we are friends.