Show Me Your Budget and Your Values

Resources shouldn’t dictate priorities. It should be exactly the opposite. Our strategy — goals and values — must be decided upon before we can appropriately deploy our resources to carry it out.

As Vice President Joe Biden has said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

Resources will always be limited — but we must use those available to enact an overall plan for the state.

I can’t say I’ve seen a real strategy set forth by Texas lawmakers. Not short-term, mid-term or long-term. And definitely not a fully funded one. Rather, there seem to be various components merely grinding against one another with no real understanding of or will by legislators to appropriately oil them or make sure they work together to meet expected ends. Education remains under-funded. Our future water supply — the area in which we have the closest to a strategy — is yet to be funded. Health care is a mess.

Lack of strategic thinking is a problem the Texas Legislature has yet to overcome. If it continues to only look at what it can afford, it will never see what could really be done to create a better future Texas. In government, strategy without resources is wasted effort and money, and resources without strategy may as well be described as theft.

This is especially applicable to Texas and many other states where balanced budgets are required. That is, spending cannot exceed revenues. In Texas, the Comptroller even has to certify that the budget passed by lawmakers can be adequately funded with projected revenues (taxes, fees, etc.). If not, it’s back to the drawing board. Ouch.

As an example and contrast of strategic and non-strategic budgeting opportunities, let’s take two budget declarations in recent times by Gov. Rick Perry:

1. That every agency zero-out it’s budget, forcing lawmakers to fund them from the ground up.

2. That every agency submit a budget request with an arbitrary 10 percent decrease in spending.

Now, zeroing-out budgets was a political maneuver on Perry’s part. But to put it a positive spin on it, it should have allowed lawmakers to truly fund their values and a strategy for Texas.

The second declaration is purely ideological. It puts spending and service cuts before even looking at their roles in a larger strategy for the state of Texas. This is, unfortunately, how most budgeting seems to occur in Texas.

There will always be ideological reasons to oppose some funds and support others (and the programs they support). But I bet if we can agree on our values — that education, health, economic development and other things important to the future of the state of Texas — we can find a way to fund them. These values may be expressed through funding government-administered programs, public-private partnerships or outsourcing. Lawmakers also have the power to increase revenues (raise taxes, fees and other income streams) if needed to fund the values informing the strategy upon which they have decided. If their values are important to them, that is.

It’s okay for our strategy to run over-budget, if we’re willing to find a way to fund (or not) our values. And we have to be honest about what we’re doing: We’re cutting funding from our agreed-upon strategy for the state. It’s that simple. We know there are problems, but we’re unwilling to create and fund a strategy to resolve those issues — to do what the people of Texas ask their leaders to do.

Take education. From TAAS to TAKS to STAAR. From public schools to vouchers, charter schools and private schools. From the State Board of Education to the legislature’s education committees and from private companies to local schools districts. Drop-out rates to in-school health centers. Who in Texas’ leadership has set out a true strategy for Texas education? Is No Child Left Behind, with its completely unrealistic goals, our education strategy?

I would describe Texas’ current investments in education, infrastructure, health and human services, environmental and other necessities as theft over strategy-driven. Maybe we’ll see a strategy in 2015.

I’d like to think I could some day say about the Texas budget what Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said about the new Defense Strategic Guidance: “This was very much a strategy-driven process to which we mapped the budget.”

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