Tuesday, January 29, 2013

State of the State


Today, Governor Rick Perry gave his State of the State Address.  Using this opportunity, he called for things conservatives want, and which- if Liberals' goals were truly what they claim- Liberals would support as well.

Here is the quick run-down:
The whole tone is set in this set of acknowledgements:
You have realized a simple truth: bureaucracy doesn't stimulate the economy, it gets in the way.

Texans succeed not because of bureaucracy, but because you, Dr. Allen, have ensured we have accountable, rigorous public schools.

Texans succeed because you, Chairwoman Zaffirini, have helped create a system of affordable, accessible higher education.

Texans succeed because you, Chairman Seliger, have given them the freedom to do more with the money they earn, and when private employers have more to spend, both the private and public sector benefit.

Texans succeed because you, Rep. Lozano, have given employers the freedom to innovate and expand with consistent, predictable and sensible regulation.

And Texans succeed because you, Rep. Creighton and Sen. Huffman, have let job creators know they won't be frivolously dragged into court and held hostage by individuals seeking to make a quick buck.

Get government out of the way, keep schools accountable to their students and their parents, control costs at public intuitions of education, keep taxes low, and protect business owners- especially small business owners.

Then an accomplishment that should make the enviro-nazis happy, but won't:
We lowered ozone levels by 23 percent between 2000-2011, and cut industrial NOx gas emissions by 60 percent over that span.

We'll get to his proposals after the break->

1- Financial stability:

We're in a position today to put our financial house in order, and it's time to do so.

We have an opportunity this session, an opportunity to true up our budget and move away from the budgetary techniques we've come to depend on all too often.

We need to pay now what is due now.

We should put in place a stronger constitutional limit on spending growth, ensuring it never grows more than the combined rate of inflation and population.

We need to make the franchise tax exemption for small businesses permanent.

We should continue to scrub the budget for any waste and redundancies, streamlining wherever possible.

We also need to do away with the practice of using dedicated funds and specific fees for anything other than the purpose for which they were intended.

If we don't need taxpayer money for that purpose, let's not collect it at all.

We've never bought into the notion that if you collect more, you need to spend more.

2- Taxes
Today, I'm calling for a mechanism to be put in place so when we do bring in more than we need, we'll have the option of returning tax money directly to the people who paid it.

And- later:
Also, while Texas is a low-tax state, let's make the burden on Texans even lower.

I know that's a goal Chairman Hilderbran has always worked towards.

In a legislative session where we can see billions still on the table after we've funded our services and met the needs of our ever-expanding population, I think providing tax relief of at least $1.8 billion over this biennium is a good place to start.

3- Infrastructure
This session, we need to deal with our state's infrastructure needs.

We must particularly address our growing needs in water and transportation.

Doing that without breaking the budget will require creativity and some "outside-the-box" thinking.

I believe one answer lies within our Rainy Day Fund.

The Rainy Day Fund was created to ensure we had a sufficient amount in reserve in case of disaster, and to ensure Texas maintains its strong credit rating.

Due to our economic success, the fund will soon hold nearly $12 billion, significantly more than the amount we need to meet those obligations.

We need to maintain a strong Rainy Day Fund.

While we cannot - and will not - raid the fund to meet ongoing expenses, we also shouldn't accumulate billions more than necessary.

That's why I support a move to utilize $3.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for a one-time investment in infrastructure programs.

In addition to the Rainy Day Fund investment, we should also end the diversion of State Highway Fund appropriations, which will mean another $1.3 billion every biennium for road maintenance and construction.

What I am proposing will support critical water and transportation systems across our state, addresses our needs both short- and long-term, and ensures both water and traffic will continue to flow in Texas for generations to come.

None of us can deny the need for these improvements.

Water and roads add to the quality of life for all Texans - anyone stuck in traffic at rush hour in our cities can speak to that.

It also plays a major role in our continued economic development.

We'll come back to that Rainy Day Fund part.

4- (Elementary & Secondary) Education
I believe that the best way forward is the way that will provide the most opportunities for each child, something I know Sen. Patrick supports.

Not every child learns for the same purpose, not every child thrives in the same settings and schools.

Limiting a child to just one opportunity does nothing more than limit that child's future.

The way forward must involve more public charter schools, which offer parents a tuition-free alternative to their neighborhood school.

These innovative public schools already serve more than 150,000 students across Texas, with more than 100,000 students on waiting lists.

It's also time to introduce scholarship programs that give students a choice, especially those who are locked into low-performing schools.

Of course, all that has to be done in a fashion that continues to encourage teachers and administrators in traditional schools to produce excellent students.

In addition to a choice of schools, we should also give students more flexibility in the courses they take in high school to prepare them for whatever their goals may be, without sacrificing our rigorous academic standards.

Anytime we talk about education, we have to remember that the focus has to be squarely on one specific special interest group: our students.

5 - College Education
Of course, this means that we have to make sure that college is accessible and affordable.

Two years ago, I stood here and called upon our institutions of higher learning to develop plans for degrees that cost no more than $10,000.

There were plenty of detractors at that time who insisted it couldn't be done.

However, that call inspired educators at colleges and universities across our state to step up to the plate.

Today, I'm proud to tell you that 13 Texas universities have announced plans for a $10,000 degree.

and later...
These are promising developments, but we must do everything we can to continue making higher education an achievable dream for all Texans.

To that end, I've called for a four-year tuition freeze for incoming freshmen, and I know Chairman Branch has been working hard on this issue.

This will provide students and families cost certainty, as their tuition will be locked in at the rate they pay their first semester for the next four years.

This will also encourage them to graduate on time, which is a problem we simply can't ignore anymore.

Currently less than 30 percent of full-time students at our four-year institutions graduate in four years, and only 58 percent have their degree in six.

That's why we should tie at least a portion of state funding - I'm suggesting a minimum of 10 percent - based on the number of graduates.

It also plays a major role in our continued economic development.

6 - Technical Colleges
Of course, not all these jobs require a college degree.

Many require a technical certification, and those jobs are among those most in demand in our state.

Last fall, I announced an initiative that will bring industries and our technical and community colleges together to create a statewide model that will enable students to swiftly earn their technical certifications at an affordable cost.

Chairman Davis and Sen. Birdwell will help lead the charge with legislation that will encourage and incentivize more fast track programs.

Under this framework, an individual will be able to attain certain certification in a high-demand industry, utilizing competency-based learning to allow students to gain credit for skills they have already mastered.

So there you have it, with most of the fluff cut out.  Ween the State off credit, as much as possible, and pay today for what we buy today.  Lower taxes.  Expanded charter schools and school vouchers (he calls them "scholarships").  Control tuition at State Universities (note he never mentions private universities, but with the quality of Texas Universities, private schools will be forced to compete as well).  Technical certification programs.  All things that Conservatives can support, to some degree.

Which is not to say his proposals are without problems.  Any time Rick Perry starts talking about "roads" I remember the Trans-Texas Corridor.  He claims that proposal has been put to bed permanently.  I guess we'll see.  My main problem, though, is with his desire to use funds which he sees as "excess" from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for road and water infrastructure.

Here's the relevant portion, again:
Due to our economic success, the fund will soon hold nearly $12 billion, significantly more than the amount we need to meet those obligations.

We need to maintain a strong Rainy Day Fund.

While we cannot - and will not - raid the fund to meet ongoing expenses, we also shouldn't accumulate billions more than necessary.

That's why I support a move to utilize $3.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for a one-time investment in infrastructure programs.

This I do not, cannot, support, as he describes it here.

Don't get me wrong.  Texas needs some help with our roads, and water infrastructure is one of our major limiting factors to importing new businesses.  These are definitely in need of repair and upgrade.  I won't dispute that, and couldn't if I wanted to.  Texas has certainly experienced some growing pains over the last decade, and our roads and water infrastructure show it. 

My problem is with using the Rainy Day Fund.  Last legislative session, we used funds from (many of us used the term "raided") the Rainy Day Fund to close the budget gap.  A simple one-time expenditure which (thanks to Governor Perry and the Republicans' policies) will be more than paid back.  We were told then that it was necessary, and it was only a one-time thing anyway.  We acceded to that logic, because we really didn't have a choice.  But it was not with doubts.

Now it seems those doubts are about to be realized.

When someone is on a diet and they cheat, no matter how good the reason, it is much more likely that they'll cheat again.  Every time they cheat, it becomes more likely they'll continue to cheat.  To me, this is the same thing.  We have the Rainy Day Fund for emergencies.  From the Texas Wildfires of just a couple years ago, to hurricanes, to other actual emergency situations, we have that Rainy Day Fund to pay for relief and recovery.  This is especially important when the President decides to withhold Federal Emergency declarations for political reasons.

Using that money is "cheating."  Every time we cheat, we are more likely to cheat again.  The first time was for a budget shortfall.  This time it's for infrastructure.  What will it be next time?

Now, as I said, I acknowledge the need for infrastructure improvements.  But, if that's the case, let's not cheat.  Using our metaphor of a person on a diet, if that person finds the diet needs adjustment, it is much better if they formally adjust their diet- making clear that their rules have changed, but they're still acting within the rules- than if they simply "cheat" every once in a while out of "necessity."  So I propose this- cap the Rainy Day fund at some amount.  We can even link the cap to inflation plus population growth, like Mr. Perry wants to do for the budget.  Any moneys that would go into that fund which exceed that amount would then, instead, go into the general fund and could be used for any projects the Legislature likes, or (if Mr. Perry has his way) returned to the taxpayer.

Then we're not cheating.  Instead, we would have knowingly and formally changed the rules.  Moreover, we would have done so in a way that acknowledges and confirms the purpose of the Rainy Day Fund.

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