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Abbott Would Limit State and Local Spending as Governor

Callie Richmond,
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sep. 28, 2013. Abbott released his first major policy plan this week.

The leading Republican in the race to be the next Texas Governor has released his first major policy plan of the campaign. Attorney General Greg Abbott’s “Working Texas” plan includes several proposals for restraining state and local government spending. 

Parts of the plan are a nod to proposals in Governor Rick Perry’s 2012 Texas Budget Compact. That includes linking the state’s constitutional spending cap to population growth and inflation instead of growth in personal incomes.

If that cap had been in place since 1990, state spending would be half of what it is today. That’s according to a study by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supports Abbott’s plan. The Foundation’s Chuck DeVore says with the cap in place, the legislature will do a better job prioritizing how it spends taxpayer money.

“You can solve a problem not simply by throwing more money at it, but by reforming and improving the way you currently do things. Which is often harder in the political sphere. It’s often easier to throw money at the problem when you’ve got the money," DeVore says.

Abbott also wants to increase the number of votes needed to override the spending cap. Right now it’s a majority vote. He wants to make it a two-thirds vote.

Some worry that’s going to make it very hard for even a majority of lawmakers to spend money on major infrastructure projects, like the water and transportation projects voted on in the 2013 session.

Dick Lavine studies taxes and the state budget for the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. He says it’s not as if the Legislature is full of spend-thrifts.

“They are already as conservative as they can be in spending money. And in fact would be better off if they were willing to make better and larger investments in our future. So I think he’s trying to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist," Lavine says.

Another part of Abbott’s plan would require every municipality to explicitly detail its debt, how much a resident is paying on current debt and how any bond proposals would increase local taxes.

Abbott says it’s about transparency. Municipalities say it’s about trying to make it harder for local governments to pass bond packages.

Bennett Sandlin, the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, says those bonds are needed because the state has stopped paying for traditional state responsibilities, like roads and water infrastructure.

“It’s probably too late to change that trend of the state expecting cities to do their work for them. We just want to be left alone to do that if that’s what we have to do," Sandlin argues. "Stop criticizing us for it. Stop trying to artificially cap us. Let us go ahead and do your work. And get on with the state’s business of building important infrastructure.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Chuck DeVore said Texas already has the second highest per capita spending on state and local debt in the country.

“About 85 percent of this debt is local debt. That’s very unique in America because as you look around the country most other states have a significantly greater portion of their debt incurred at the state level not the local level," DeVore says.

Abbott’s plan will play well with GOP primary voters, but that doesn’t mean he’d get all of it passed if he becomes governor. Governor Rick Perry and other conservative leaders have been trying for years to enact similar budget and spending proposals, with little luck so far.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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