Sunday, May 19, 2002

Perry talks about Corridor in campaign

Texas-size promises and no tax increases

Perry and Sanchez work magic to keep proposals in the black

May 19, 2002

Ken Herman, Staff
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2002

Defending the palace for the first time since completing their total conquest of Texas state government, Republicans -- traditional champions of small government -- are taking something of a traditionally Democratic approach to maintaining control.

Gov. Rick Perry is pitching high-dollar programs that would pump up public schools, offer low-cost college loans and solve the state's transportation woes for about a half-century.

But wait, there's more.

Perry also wants to slap high-tech tracking devices on sex offenders and provide a long-range thirst-quencher by sifting the salt out of water from the Gulf of Mexico.

The normal retail value of the proposals pitched so far comes in at something north of $175 billion.

And all without a tax increase.

Perry is not alone out there offering something for nothing. Last week Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez offered an education overhaul lacking a bottom line but complete with a promise of no tax increases.

The pitches are not impressing experts from competing think tanks.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities, which believes state government needs more money to spend, wants candidates to gut up and talk about raising taxes.

"Shifting money from one pocket to the other isn't going to be enough," said Dick Lavine, a veteran fiscal policy analyst for the think tank. "The only other way to get the money we need to make the investments that we all agree will build a better Texas in the future is to either raise taxes or print our money."

So far, neither major gubernatorial candidate has talked about raising taxes or buying printing presses.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which believes government has more money than it needs, wants to hear candidates talk about reduced spending.

"There are more conservative voters in Texas than there ever have been before, but what we are hearing in this election cycle is that these candidates seem to be competing for the votes of a shrinking pool of big-government liberals," said Jeff Judson, the foundation's president. "It puzzles me."

Perry's plan, and how it gets done without tax increases, relies primarily on federal money and existing bond and unused program funds.

Though next year's lawmakers will come to town at a time when projections of fiscal doom will run neck and neck with projections of fiscal gloom, Perry is convinced that his programs are budget-balanced.

"Despite tight economic times, Governor Perry has offered significant policy initiatives that address both long- and short-term needs, and he has recommended funding sources for all of his initiatives," spokeswoman Kathy Walt said. "And he has found sound methods for funding that does not include any new general revenue."

Meanwhile, Sanchez hasn't balanced the budget for his education proposal because he doesn't know how much it will cost. He is saying one way to pay for it is to "scrub the budget" -- a refrain made popular by former Republican Gov. Bill Clements in his campaigns.

The Sanchez education plan includes a sizable pay raise for teachers: a one-time boost of more than $4,000 each to bring them up to the national average.

"I knew you were going to ask that," Sanchez said when the how-much question came up during a conference call.

Sanchez insists no tax increases will be needed. The key, he said, is the "reprioritizing" of state spending. Ditto for his plan to reduce class sizes.

Sources of money

Perry's most ambitious proposal, and one tentatively scheduled for completion when he is 103, is a 50-year vision of a 4,000-mile Trans Texas Corridor , which would include major new highways, pipelines and railways. The projected bottom line is $175 billion, but Perry insists that an infusion of private and federal money would stave off the need for any tax increases.

Perry's public education plan, with a tax-increase-free annual bottom line of $200 million, includes improvements in early childhood programs, teacher incentives and dropout prevention programs. Every dollar, according to the governor, would come from the federal government.

He slapped a $243 million annual estimate on the startup of a program aimed at showing private industry that it's time to start desalinating the Gulf of Mexico for water supplies.

Perry's higher education plan includes low-interest loans for students who would be the first in their families to attend college.

Crime fighting, without tax increases, came up last week in San Antonio when Perry appointed an anti-crime commission to come up with ideas for the 2003 Legislature, such ideas as increased use of global positioning technology to track sex offenders.

How much for the anti-crime package?

"We need to have the recommendations before we know whether or not they're going to have a price tag," he said. "Obviously, there are some that will."

The commission is due to report back on Dec. 1, a few weeks after Texans decide on a governor.

Even Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, the state official who has projected a possible $5 billion shortfall in 2004-05, is chiming in with a high-dollar proposal she says can be done without tax increases. Rylander wants to use $150 million a year in state lottery revenue to pay for free community college education for any recent high school graduate who asks.

Rylander said she has identified a potential $250 million in savings to offset the new costs and then some. She said her cost-savings proposals would make state government more efficient, in part by using more of her employees to audit tax returns and identify underpayments.

She dismissed suggestions that her plan is an election-year freebie aimed at winning over voters.

"I'm not just going to earmark that $150 million (for community colleges) without replacing it," she said. "I will do battle with anyone that we have to prioritize in tough economic times, and education has got to be plugged in first."

Lavine of the Center for Public Policy Priorities believes the candidates are short-selling Texans' ability to comprehend what he believes is the truth in a state with a $114 billion biennial budget.

"Everybody knows in their own family budget if they want to move into a bigger house or buy a nicer car, they are going to have to come up with more money," he said. "It would be better if candidates recognized that people are not dumb and just leveled with them."

Like Lavine, Judson of the Public Policy Foundation thinks candidates are missing the point.

"There is some anxiety out there about the state's fiscal situation. There is anxiety out there about people's rising property taxes, and I don't think those people are being fed emotionally by what the campaigns are talking about," said Judson, who wants to hear how candidates are going to close the budget gap, even if they talk about raising taxes.

Budget comes first

The last major candidate to open the door to tax increases, former Attorney General Dan Morales, was trounced in the Democratic gubernatorial primary by Sanchez, who says taxes are "off the table."

The major candidates for lieutenant governor, competing for the right to control the Senate gavel, have been slow to roll out new programs.

"We've got a pretty big budget crisis on our hands," said Nicole Sherbert, spokeswoman for Democratic nominee John Sharp, referring to the projected revenue shortfall.

Sherbert said Sharp would be unveiling his plans shortly but new programs would have to wait. "Every single thing we do comes after we fix the budget," she said.

Sharp, however, has discussed taking lottery revenue, now going to public education, to pay for college scholarships for good students.

In his latest TV commercials, GOP candidate David Dewhurst has talked about the need to raise teacher salaries and provide affordable health care. Like Sanchez, he has not told anyone how we would get there from here.

Dewhurst's current TV ads end with one of those tag lines that's hard to argue with: "Government we deserve at a cost we can afford."; 445-1718

Rick Perry: Governor says federal, bond and unused program money would pay for plans. // Tony Sanchez: Money for teacher raises could come from 'scrubbing' the budget.

© 2002 Austin American-Statesman: