Friday, June 20, 2003

Strayhorn throws down the gauntlet on HB 3588

Strayhorn nixes budget over technical error in transportation bill


by Gilbert Zavala

The Lone Star Report
Volume 7, Issue 40
Copyright 2003

Close but no cigar, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn told state leaders June 19.

Declaring the $117.5 billion state budget out of balance by $185.9 million, Strayhorn refused the certification constitutionally required for giving effect to the much-fought-over 2004-05 spending plan.

No previous Texas budget had ever been ruled financially wanting under the state’s 61-year-old balanced budget amendment.

Gov. Rick Perry said technical corrections would satisfy the comptroller’s objections. Speaker Tom Craddick, downplaying the notion that a budgetary crisis exists, said the spending gap – $10 billion at the start of the just-concluded legislative sessions – amounts to only 0.1 percent of state spending for the next biennium.

Strayhorn acted under a 1942 state constitutional amendment requiring the comptroller of public accounts to return any uncertified appropriations bill to the Legislature.

Strayhorn said the state needs a certifiable “pay-as-you-go” budget by mid-July if public schools are to open in September. Speaking at a press conference, she said the constitutional mandate deprived her of any “discretion” in certifying an unbalanced budget.

She thus becomes the first comptroller ever to return an uncertified budget to the Legislature.

Strayhorn said certifying the 2004-2005 budget, as written, would violate her constitutional charge. “This constitutional requirement cannot be ignored,” she declared. “I cannot abdicate my responsibility. The Legislature cannot abdicate its responsibility.”

The comptroller called an “anti-bounce” rider on the state budget constitutionally questionable. The rider instructs Strayhorn to contact the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) if the budget fails to certify; it further empowers the governor and the LBB to appropriate funding from vetoed legislation and authorizes budget cuts in certain areas.

“The existence of the contingent rider does not solve the problem,” said Strayhorn. “If the constitutional process is to be changed, it must be by constitutional amendment voted on and approved by the people of Texas.” The comptroller said her certification efforts thus far took account of revenue freed up as a result of gubernatorial vetoes.

Strayhorn, a critic of the rider, previously announced that she had retained University of Houston law professor Sydney Buchanan to advise her office on it as well as on the certification requirements in the state constitution’s Art. 3, Sec. 49. Strayhorn said a “battery” of attorneys had advised her as to the constitutional status of the rider.

The comptroller faulted plans for using monies from the rainy day fund and one-time funding sources to close the budget shortfall. “I don’t like spending the entire rainy day fund, but I certified every dollar from the rainy day fund,” she said. “Also the 78th Legislature increased by four times the use of one-time funding sources. But I counted these as certifiable because, technically, the cash is there for the biennium, though we are pushing the problem to future taxpayers.”

Strayhorn said a last-minute change to HB 3588, the transportation/trauma care bill, sent the budget out of balance by transferring $236 million from the general revenue fund to the Texas Mobility Fund in FY 2005.

However, the bill’s two authors – House Transportation Chairman Mike Krusee (R-Austin) and Senate Infrastructure Development & Security Chairman Steve Ogden (R-College Station) – suggested that Strayhorn’s office may have been confused regarding that provision.

Krusee sent a letter to Strayhorn clarifying his legislative intent in HB 3588 and indicating that the disposition of motor vehicle driver license fees, motor vehicle driver record information fees, and motor vehicle inspection fees not take place until FY 2006.

Perry, at a subsequent press conference, said he had not had a chance to analyze Strayhorn’s critique. He said such problems as she identified could likely be fixed through technical corrections, perhaps prior to the June 30 special session. The governor said there was “plenty of money to fund the $185 million” by which the budget falls short.

If the problem is with transportation dollars, Perry said, “I think Sen. Ogden and Rep. Krusee can address that.” Ogden said a technical correction on the funds transfer mandated by the transportation bill could be “easily” corrected in one day of the upcoming special session. He called the Senate version of the bill “unambiguous” but said he was unsure whether a clerical error was introduced into the conference version.

Strayhorn subsequently said in a statement that the Krusee/Ogden letter “has no impact whatsoever.” She said her staff combed through 4,000 pieces of legislation, including 930 bills during the last week of the session, before discovering the budget did not balance.

“I am bound by the constitution to evaluate bills as passed and enrolled,” Strayhorn said. “The constitution does not permit me to consider after the fact letters that purport to change the clear terms of enrolled bills.”

If the House and Senate fail to reduce appropriations to free up funding, or create additional revenue sources, they can override the comptroller’s decision by a four-fifths vote in each chamber. O

James A. Cooley contributed to this article

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