Public domain image.

It’s routine for top state leaders to ask government agencies to tighten their belts, but don’t get the kooky idea that the state budget will shrink.

That’s not how this works — the Texas state budget is actually pretty tight, as budgets go, but it almost never actually gets smaller.

Meanwhile, the cost-cutting efforts often overshadow scrutiny of the state programs and services being funded.

Every two years, the state Legislature writes a new budget. In the summer before lawmakers meet, the agencies start sending in their requests.

The services and programs are largely prescribed by the Legislature itself. Legislators say they want something, and the agencies tell them what it will cost to get it.

But then, to put it politely and passively, games are played. Sometimes the agencies pad their numbers, or ask for things the lawmakers didn’t have in mind. Sometimes they ask for things the lawmakers don’t think are necessary.

It goes the other way, too. Lawmakers don’t always want to pay for what the agencies want. It costs quite a bit to air condition a prison, or to cut the number of cases on a foster care worker’s desk, or to add an HOV lane to a freeway.

Mindful of these games, your lawmakers order the agencies to restrain themselves when drawing up their new lists of necessities.

This year, the biennial shot across the budget bow landed on the last day of June, in a letter signed by the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House.

“As the starting point for budget deliberations, we are requiring each agency to trim four percent from their base appropriation levels,” they wrote.

The agencies have to figure out what would happen if their next budgets were that much smaller than their current ones. In a separate memo from the Legislative Budget Board, those agencies were asked to “submit a 10% Biennial Base Reduction Options Schedule detailing how the agency would reduce the 2018-19 biennial baseline request by 10% in General Revenue Funds and General Revenue-Dedicated Funds.”

Once more, in English: “Show us what it would look like if we cut the part of your budget covered by state funds by 10%.”

Ordinarily, this is the equivalent of the emergency warning signal test periodically run by local TV and radio stations. It lasts for a few moments, gives you a chance to step out and reload the cheese dip and doesn’t actually require anyone to run for a storm shelter.

It’s only a drill.

(There was that one time, though, in 2010, when state revenues tanked and the leaders told the state agencies to cut their current budgets — not their requests, but their current spending — by 5%.)

The pre-budget orders vary, depending on how the state is doing economically and what is being demanded of it legally and politically. This year, for instance, the letter listed several things that should not be cut, even for conversational purposes: public education, border security, debt service on state bonds, state employee pensions, child protective services, behavioral health services, Medicaid, CHIP and foster care.

To some extent, that reflects issues of the past year or so: Public education funding just survived a legal challenge from half of the state’s school districts; border security tops the list of most important problems facing the state in numerous polls; the state’s protection for children and disabled Texans is notoriously inadequate.

Nobody in the Legislature wants to spend more than what must be spent, but what lawmakers really don’t want to do is cut the budget of something and then get blamed when something goes wrong.

In 1996, the orders didn’t include specific instructions for cuts. The 1998 instructions told agencies not to ask for money to cover growth — except in public and higher education, prisons and federally mandated programs. The hammer fell in 2004, when budget officials asked the agencies to submit proposals that cut 5%. In 2006, it was 10%.

The agencies can ask for higher spending in lists of “exceptional items,” and they often get funded.

See, there is an unstated law at work here: Nobody in the Legislature wants to spend more than what must be spent, but what lawmakers really don’t want to do is cut the budget of something and then get blamed when something goes wrong — as has been the case in recent months in Child Protective Services.

The agencies themselves are often to blame. But when the problems stem from a lack of resources — child protection is a chilling example — the fault lies with the legislative budget-writers, whose minds were on costs when they should have been on services.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Top image: Public domain image.

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Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

Ross Ramsey writes a regular column for The Texas Tribune, where he is executive editor.