OP-ED: Surplus or Deficit: Pandemic impacts demand budgeting for Texas-sized opportunities

Published 7:54 am Saturday, January 23, 2021

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A.J. Rodriguez
Texas 2036’s Executive Vice President

Due primarily to the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas elected officials were bracing for a $4.6 billion budget deficit. However, the Texas economy performed better than expected, and Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar projects the state will face a budget that starts with a $1 billion deficit.

Fortunately, Texas budget writers have several different opportunities to offset this deficit and leverage additional resources to meet our state’s current and future needs. These include the $1 billion in proposed Texas state agency budget reductions, billions in CARES Act federal funds, and the recently passed federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021. If the legislature so chooses, they can also draw on some of the $11.6 billion in the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the “Rainy Day Fund.”

Given what our state has gone through – the health, education and economic challenges that the pandemic has highlighted – it’s time for Texas to plan to leverage every dollar we can to benefit our growing, diverse population.

Examples include educating our children. We must make sure the progress made with House Bill 3 continue this session, and lawmakers focus on what they can do to address COVID-related learning loss. Last week, the Texas Education Agency released a study that indicates Texas students experienced more than three months of instructional loss from pandemic-led closures. When only 30 percent of Texas 4th graders could read at grade level and only 44 percent of them are proficient at math, this learning loss could seriously impact our future generation’s educational attainment.

Further, the number of uninsured has increased to nearly five million Texans. At the same time, many Texans — both insured and uninsured — are skipping necessary care due to cost or the lack of available care options. It’s critical for Texans across the state to support our elected officials in determining ways we can ensure more Texans have access to affordable care.

We’ve learned so much about how our government performs with antiquated technology and just how fragile our workforce can be when faced with disruption. There is no better time for us to reconsider the government structures that support our education-to-workforce pipeline so that more Texans earn living-wage jobs and can meet employers’ needs for skilled workers. We must prepare our Texas workforce for the future, so our economy not only recovers but grows to support nearly 10 million more Texans by our bicentennial in 2036.

We also saw both the value and need for Texas to adopt a broadband plan that would allow the millions of Texans to benefit from distance learning, telehealth and e-commerce.

Action on these fronts – education, health, workforce, broadband, and government performance – will help our state move forward.

Texas leaders have rightly been cautious about government spending. But today, there are opportunities for Texas leaders to leverage the dollars that our taxpayers send to Austin (and Washington, D.C.). Lawmakers will need to spend with an eye to the future: prioritizing investments today that can benefit Texans (and the more than 1,000 people moving to Texas everyday) without creating unsustainable recurring costs once federal funds dry up.

With only 140 days in a legislative session, our state legislators need to be prepared to leverage every resource that becomes available to help Texas today and tomorrow.

It’s time for every dollar to count toward a more prosperous future for ALL Texans.

A.J. Rodriguez, a long-time business and civic leader and former Texas Association of Business Chair, is Texas 2036’s Executive Vice President.