A Texas Sized Solution for a Texas Sized Problem

It’s true what they say: everything is bigger in Texas, even the hole in our budget.  Today the Comptroller’s office released their estimated revenue projections, and according to most calculations, given state budget needs for the next cycle our deficit weighs in at a hefty $27 billion dollars.  Compare that big budget deficit to another number from the Texas Comptroller’s office (that’s right, the same office):$19 billion dollars.  That’s how much they estimate in a new report Texas could save annually through energy efficiency, smart building standards and other strategies that have environmental benefits and save money at the same time.

The report is the result of legislation passed in 2009 by Sen. Kirk Watson called the “No Regrets” bill, which asked the Comptroller to look at strategies for the state that would save money in Texas, and also reduce CO2 emissions.  The final report is the product of exhaustive work on the part of the Comptroller’s and Senator Watson’s offices, along with the PUC, Railroad Commission, TCEQ, the General Land Office and a broad set of stakeholders including oil and gas companies, manufacturers, businesses, electric companies, environmentalists, Texas A&M, and UT Austin to name a few.

With a set of stakeholders that broad it’s never easy to come to an agreement on even a single strategy.  To Comptroller Combs and Senator Watson’s credit, they shepherded a process that lead to full stakeholder agreement that 20 of the 44 proposed strategies would both save the state money and reduce carbon dioxide.  According to an analysis from the final report, the total annual savings of enacting these strategies would be almost $20 billion.  Of course, saving money for Texans isn’t the same as saving money for the state government, but some of these savings translate directly into state budget savings, while others could be used to offset the need for budget cuts.

During the last budget cycle state leaders were able to patch the budget gap with federal stimulus money but this time around we won’t have that option. Tough decisions will need to be made and Texans have made it clear they’re not interested in new taxes. If you compare Texas’ deficit to other states with Texas sized economies like New York ($9 billion) and Florida ($3 billion) as economist Paul Krugman did in a column last week, you start to get an idea of the sort of trouble we’re in.  Even California’s deficit is about 20% of their general revenue, compared with about 31% for Texas and with an economy about two thirds the size of California’s.

State leaders have been vocal that this time around some difficult decisions will have to be made.  Texans will likely have to deal with longer Emergency Room visits (and more of them!), larger classroom sizes, fewer police officers and firefighters and less care for our grandparents.  State leaders are right to be worried about the looming budget shortfall and the need to tighten our belts, and the No Regrets Report lays out a good roadmap to begin to do that. In the mean time as has been mentioned by my colleagues Elena Craft and Jim Marston, the state could save money immediately by dropping their frivolous lawsuit aimed at circumventing a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court.

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