by ED STERLING
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs on Dec. 12 presented Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus with the annual estimate of state revenues.
Spending was set by the Texas Legislature at $81.1 billion for the 2012-2013 fiscal biennium, and Combs’ estimate shows the state will have $82.7 billion available for general revenue-related funds, an amount that would yield an ending balance of $1.6 billion, on Aug. 31, 2013.
Combs attributed the positive ending balance to a better-than-expected economy, increased tax collections, and in particular, increased oil and gas severance tax revenues because of accelerated activity in the Eagle Ford Shale formation and the Permian Basin.
Combs noted, however, “While Texas continues to recover, events now unfolding throughout the world are of great concern” — such as the recession in Europe, economic slowdowns in China and India and gridlock in Washington, D.C.
And yet, while the state is projected to reach the end of the two-year budget cycle with more than one billion dollars unspent, fiscal analyst Dick Lavine with the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities called for the state to reform its revenue system.
“When the Legislature returns in 2013, even with the comptroller’s revised revenue estimate, it will face three problems,” Lavine said:
1.The Legislature still has no way to cover the $10 billion structural deficit it created by the 2006 tax cut;
2.Before it can even write the next budget, the Legislature must first cover an estimated $4.8 billion in authorized but unfunded Medicaid expenditures; and
3.Texas will have more people and higher costs.
“Any one of these three problems dwarfs the revenue growth forecast by the comptroller, leaving the state with a shortfall, not a surplus,” Lavine said.
Garland lawmaker sentenced
An Austin state district judge sentenced State Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, to five years of deferred adjudication for the third-degree felony of double-billing his campaign account and Texas taxpayers for travel expenses and pocketing the money, the Austin American-Statesman reported Dec. 19.
Driver “paid hotels and airlines with donated political funds and then submitted the same expenses to the state, taking the taxpayer money for himself,” the report said, and the court ordered Driver, who has served as a state representative since 1992, to pay a $5,000 fine and $63,746 in restitution.
Jobless rate drops again
Texas Workforce Commission on Dec. 16 reported the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent in November, down from 8.4 percent in October.
Texas has experienced positive annual job growth during the last 19 months, with annual growth rates above 2.0 percent for the last six consecutive months.
To help put that 8.4 percent unemployment rate in perspective, the civilian labor force in Texas grew by more than 21,000 in November, and now stands at 12.3 million workers, the agency reported.
DPS to increase watchfulness
Texas Department of Public Safety troopers will be stepping up enforcement efforts to ensure safety on the roadways and seek out impaired drivers through Jan. 1, the agency announced.
Additional troopers will be on the road targeting drunk drivers in locations where alcohol-related crashes are most likely to occur. This effort is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation for targeted DWI enforcement over various holidays throughout the year.
All available troopers will also be on patrol across the state during the Christmas and New Year’s weekends to enforce traffic safety as part of Operation Holiday.
Association’s assets frozen
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Dec. 19 announced his office secured an asset freeze and temporary restraining order against the Texas Highway Patrol Association and two of its affiliate organizations.
Last week, Attorney General Abbott charged the organizations with illegally soliciting charitable donations and falsely claiming, in part, that donors’ contributions would benefit the families of fallen state police officers.
Named as defendants are the THPA, the Texas Highway Patrol Museum, THPA Services, Inc. and several senior THPA officials.
Border Guard funding to be cut
Federal funding of the 1,200 National Guard personnel assigned to duty along the U.S.-Mexico border will cease on June 30, the Obama administration announced recently.
If Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the governors of New Mexico, Arizona and California wish to keep their National Guard units in place for border security, shifts to state funding will be required.
Ed Sterling works for the Texas Press Association and follows the Legislature for the association.