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Dire Budget Estimate Fit Well With Prevailing Politics

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

Susan Combs, the state’s comptroller, stumbled two years ago, grossly underestimating Texas’ revenues and forcing lawmakers into a belt-tightening mode that probably wasn’t necessary.

The word “shortfall” haunted the 2011 legislative session, as lawmakers worked to continue programs and services in the face of a recession and an official forecast that income was suffering. They made cuts. They balanced the budget (if you’re charitable and not very good at arithmetic). And they bragged about it and went home.

It would be unfair to leave it at that. A fair number of those lawmakers were happy to make the cuts and would have been happier to make more. Many of them were motivated by ideology, not by the fiscal math.

And one reason they’re not screaming at the comptroller is that her lowball forecast two years ago was politically helpful to a legislature elected in a conservative sweep in 2010.

That 2010 vote was part of a nationwide conservative swing. In Texas, it changed a House with 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats into one with 102 Republicans and 48 Democrats.

Advocates for more spending — on education, health care, you name it — were muzzled by the official forecast. Instead of saying no to their ideas, budget writers told them that money was tight all around, that the Legislature was in no mood to raise taxes or fees, and that other programs and services were fighting for the same money.

The comptroller’s numbers helped the conservatives do what they had wanted to do in the first place.

Whatever their motivation, it turns out they had more money than they thought they did. Combs’ forecast was wrong — and not by a little bit.

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