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Austin American-Statesman Op-Ed: Moorhead: Spending limits versus moral discernment

By: 
Executive Director

Note: this story originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman Opinion section, May 22, 2016.


In launching the Senate Finance Committee’s discussion of state spending limits this week, Sen. Jane Nelson said “the goal of spending limits is quite simple, but the calculations and application are much more complex.”

In fact, quite the opposite is the case. Calculating and applying formulas are the relatively straightforward tasks of fiscal policy practitioners. Placing arbitrary limits on the state’s capacity to meet human needs and work for a better future, on the other hand, requires moral discernment.

Over the course of the 20th century, Texas put in place systems to limit legislators’ ability to raise revenues and spend funds. Budget experts say these limits are quite strong compared to those in other states. Nevertheless, some state leaders hope to find ways to tighten them even further.

 
Proponents of stricter limits on state spending say the limits are necessary to prevent “growing government.” Opponents leap to government’s defense, but the existence or size of government is not an end in itself. Government is just a tool that does certain work. Limiting spending is a way to limit the amount of work government can accomplish.

An Internet search for the term “budget as moral document” returns more than 49 million results. We often think of “budget morality” in terms of how much we spend on specific items of expenditure — like anti-poverty programs or the military — relative to how much we spend on other priorities. In seeking to tighten aggregate limits on state spending, however, lawmakers must consider a different set of moral questions.

For example, lawmakers should consider the implications of creating an arbitrary ceiling for humanitarian response. While many state programs and policies are consistent year-to-year, Texas has seen its share of one-time crises in the past — and likely will see more in the future. Hurricanes, floods, fires, and fears of global terrorism are phenomena that the Legislature has opened its wallet for in recent years. Legislators currently have flexibility to work around existing spending limits to meet extraordinary needs — but one committee member stressed that legislative flexibility is what proposals for tighter limits would reduce.

Lawmakers should consider the implications of limiting spending for specific populations. For instance, since 1945, Texas has constitutionally limited assistance payments on behalf of needy children and their caretakers to less than one percent of the state budget. There is no constitutional limit on assistance for any other group of Texans, so the most vulnerable members of the community are uniquely disadvantaged.

Moreover, spending on cash assistance today actually is much less than one percent of the budget. Texas voters in the 1940s could not have anticipated the changes in public policy and technology that have realigned social programs in the 21st century. In the same way, specific spending limits that might look appealing today could have unintended consequences or prove anachronistic in the future.

Lawmakers should consider the impact of state spending limits on other areas of spending and economic activity. For example, limiting state spending on public education would increase the need for local spending, leaving taxpayers no better off. Meanwhile, limiting spending on infrastructure would make Texas inhospitable to business, leading to worse economic conditions.

Lawmakers often compare state government to a family that must pinch pennies and live within its means, but they should consider the implications of that comparison. Families don’t set arbitrary limits on their household income for the sake of preventing growth. Instead, they maximize every strategy to increase income — including investments in education that increase future income — so they can meet the needs of all members of the family.

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