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Texas Legislative Expert Exports Insights Beyond Borders

LBJ School’s Sherri Greenberg Continues to Inform the Conversation on Texas Legislative Issues with Far-Ranging Implications

Sherri Greenberg, LBJ School Lecturer, Interim Director of the LBJ School’s Center for Politics and Governance (CPG) and a former Texas state representative, was called upon by local, national and international media to explain the hot topics of the 82nd Texas State Legislative Session and the special session that followed. The issues ranged from the budget shortfall, to redistricting, to government transparency. From local media, to the International Press Corps, all eyes were on Texas. In this Q&A, Greenberg explains why the nation and the world look to Texas as the canary in the coal mine on so many issues.

Q: Over the past several months, you have spoken to reporters from all over the country and the world about  political  issues in Texas, including the International Press Corps, which interviewed you on redistricting and the budget. Why does the rest of the nation care so much about Texas?

A: If Texas were a nation, it would have one of the largest economies in the world. There is certainly a lot of interest in Texas, whether it’s the International Press Corps coming to interview me about redistricting  and the budget or the state department sending people here to meet with me. And that is because, for most countries, comparing themselves to the entire United States isn’t feasible but the state of Texas is the size of many of those countries. They can look at what we are doing in Texas as far as policy, management techniques, budgeting and governance and try to apply those same standards to their country. These countries can’t relate to the entire United States. So, I have found, internationally, there is a lot of interest. And nationally there is a lot of interest, because people tend to look at what is going on in Texas since we are the second most populous state in the nation. That has only increased over time as Texas has diversified its economy after the savings and loan debacle and oil bust in the 1980s.

Q: What is your overall impression of this most recent Texas state legislative session?

A: With this last regular and special session, there were lots of high profile issues including a big budget shortfall. Many of the other high profile issues such as immigration, sanctuary cities, women’s health and abortion, are also hot button issues nationwide, and Texas has certainly had some legislative fights on these issues.

My overall impression of this session is that everyone knew it was going to be tough from the get-go. As expected, the budget took up most of the oxygen, leaving many of the other important issues to be discussed and debated at another time.

The budget is the only bill that has to pass because if it doesn’t, the government shuts down. If you need big dollars, you have to go to where the big dollars are, and in Texas, that’s education and health and human services. When you look at general revenue, about 60% is education and 30% is health and human services.

Beyond the budget, there was redistricting. There are certainly political ramifications for politicians if they aren’t seen as getting redistricting done for their parties. Texas gained four congressional seats in this census cycle. Also, the legislature reapportioned state senate and house districts, largely leaving the current party political distribution in place.

Q: In a recent op-ed for the Austin American Statesman, you referred to the Texas state budget plan for the next biennium as “the ultimate punt.” In your opinion, did the legislature “punt” the state’s budget problems?

A: What I mean by the ultimate punt, as far as this budget that was just crafted for the next biennium, is that we didn’t address the $10 billion structural deficit in the budget. The structural deficit occurred due to changes in the property tax and the creation of the margins tax in 2006 and was exacerbated by the recession. We also punted by bridging a $27 billion 2012-2013 budget shortfall with gimmicks.

Various members wanted to address the margins tax and tax exemptions, but that did not occur. So, we really punted. We cut public education by $4 billion. We deferred about $2.3 billion in additional payments that are due to public schools in the next biennium. We have underfunded Medicaid by $4.8 billion, and we will need to use the Rainy Day Fund later to fix Medicaid. We have pushed everything off. These issues will be more painful next time around.

Q: As a former Texas state representative, you have received a great number of calls from local, state, national and international media. What were reporters most interested to know about the state of Texas politics and policy?

A: They have been asking about Rick Perry and whether or not he will announce a run for the presidency. Obviously, he is seriously considering a run. It comes down to time, funding and personal considerations. They have asked about the economy here in Texas, the budget shortfall, redistricting, education, health and human services and Medicaid, and government transparency.

I supervised a policy research project with LBJ School students that examined how the Texas state government could be more open and transparent. We wrote a report called “Beyond Raw Data” that offers recommendations to the state on how high-value data can be assembled and distributed to the public in a useful way. With the passing of legislation regarding transparency, this has also been a hot topic.

Q: Now that this legislative cycle is coming to a close, what do you have planned for the fall?.

A: In the fall, CPG will be teaming up with Governing Magazine on September 7th for a forum to discuss the unique challenges of governing against a backdrop of decreasing revenue and increasing need for efficiency.

In October, CPG will also partner with The University of Texas at Austin School of Law and the School of Architecture for in-depth panel discussions examining best practices nationwide to encourage planning and implementing links between affordable housing and mass transit.

More immediately, CPG has partnered on three summer events with the Austin American Statesman and the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Hot Talk Summer in the City Speaker Series.

More from Sherri Greenberg

06/28/2011 Texans in Congress not immune to economic woes The Houston Chronicle

06/25/2011 Texas lawmakers use budget tricks to dodge tough calls by Sherri Greenberg Austin American Statesman

06/23/2011 Perry considers presidential run The Daily Texan

06/22/2011 New Laws Push Government Transparency, Protect Privacy The Texas Tribune

06/22/2011 After data screwup, state tries to prevent breaches Hays Free Press

06/02/2011 Special Session of Legislature Called as Result of Filibuster The Daily Texan

05/25/2011 Redistricting maps could face local hurdles YNN

05/24/2011 The Hidden Tradeoffs of GOP Candidates The New Republic

05/05/2011 Not so easy: Republican hopes of snagging extra seats following last year’s census look doomed to disappointment The Economist

05/01/2011 The Future of Public Pension Funds - Why It Matters to Every Texan The Texas Lyceum

04/15/2011 State redistricting battles begin Hays Free Press

04/06/2011 Senate OKs Bill to Promote Texas Data Transparency The Texas Tribune

02/05/2011 Perry has chance to outline agenda in State of State speech Austin American Statesman

02/03/2011 Ellis works to halt wrongful convictions Houston Chronicle

01/31/2011 Students call for increased government accessibility The Daily Texan

01/22/2011Lift the Blinds on Texas Budgets by Sherri Greenberg Austin American Statesman

01/22/2011 Texas budget cuts may shift burden to locals