Republicans face battles over planned budget cuts

Nolan Hicks

Texas Republicans — including Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus — ran and won on a platform that promised a balanced state budget without new taxes.

State budget and politics experts said Wednesday the legislative session may be just as painful for Republicans as election night was for Democrats if they balance the budget with huge cuts to education and healthcare. The budget shortfall could be as much as $25 billion, or about 30 percent of state spending based on the current budget.

The reduction of Democrats in the Texas House means that Republicans will take sole responsibility for consequences of significant budget cuts, said Dave McNeely, a retired political columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.

“Nov. 2 was a bad day to be a Texas Democrat, and the day the next legislative session opens will be a bad day to be a Republican,” McNeely said. “The cuts are going to be savage — Texas already runs frugally and if you’re trying to make up $25 billion with just spending cuts, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Spending on education and health and human services makes up about 75 percent of the budget — eliminating all other spending still wouldn’t completely close the budget gap.

“There is literally no way to balance this budget with cuts alone,” said Dick LaVine, a senior budget analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “There are ways to raise money that might be acceptable to the governor if they’re not called tax increases; like fee and tuition increases.”

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, said it wouldn’t be surprising to see an another 5- to 10-percent reduction in funding to high priority budget items such as universities and public schools.

“You couldn’t make the limitations we’d have to make to balance the budget if you didn’t make [meaningful] cuts to the two largest areas of the budget,” Branch said, referring to education and social services. “Our [funding] for our highest priorities is going to have to shrink because the budget is going to have to shrink.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said that fewer Democrats wouldn’t make a difference in what cuts are made and how they are made.

“It was in the hands of the Republicans before,” he said.

Sticking with the strategy of significant spending cuts also carries political risks for the Republicans, said Sherri Greenberg, interim director of the LBJ School’s Center for Politics and Governance.

In 2003, the Texas Legislature closed a $10 billion budget shortfall by cutting spending — including reducing the number of children on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which subsidizes healthcare for children of low-income families. Greenberg said that decision will hurt Republican representatives in swing districts during the next two elections.