Perry offers budget with zero dollars

AUSTIN–Saying every dollar the state spends must be fully

accounted for, Gov. Rick Perry submitted his proposal Friday for

the 2004-05 budget cycle and recommended that state agencies start

at zero and justify every amount they request.

Perry, a Republican who took office two years ago and was

elected to his first four-year term in November, called his

proposal “historic.”

His 15-page document gives no indication about which agencies he

thinks need more money and which could get by with less.

Critics accused Perry of shirking his obligation to lay out his

priorities to a Legislature that opened its 140-day session this

week with the news that the state is facing a $9.9 billion

shortfall over the next two years. Costs are spiraling for programs

such as Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance while receipts

from sales taxes and other sources are lagging because of the

sluggish economy.

In a news release, Perry said he plans to work closely with

lawmakers to flesh out the spending plan, which he said would meet

the state’s essential needs over the next two years.

Perry, along with fellow Republicans Tom Craddick, the new House

speaker, and incoming Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, has been urging the

GOP-dominated Legislature to resist any pressure to raise taxes.

The budget for the present two-year cycle is $114 billion.

“The current fiscal situation demands that we re-examine the

core responsibilities of government and the state spending

practices of the past dozen years,” said Perry, who issued his

budget recommendation in cooperation with Dewhurst and Craddick.

“This budget starts at zero, because in tough budgetary times,

every dollar spent by government must be scrutinized to determine

whether it justifies consideration as a priority.”

In Fort Worth, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn neither

praised nor criticized the budget proposal. It is “certainly the

leadership’s prerogative” to submit such a budget, Strayhorn said

before speaking to a group of real estate agents Friday at the

Petroleum Club.

“I’ll let the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker

speak for themselves on what they’re doing,” she said.

Strayhorn said she has suggested a different approach to solving

the shortfall. Her plan would give agencies a working number and

force them to justify additional expenditures, she said.

While the three top leaders said the unprecedented action of

recommending a zero budget will end with greater accountability for

state spending, critics called the document an abdication of their

responsibility to set priorities for the Legislature, which meets

for 20 weeks every other year.

“The governor is the chief executive officer of our state, and

he is required by the Texas Constitution to make recommendations

for funding the state’s needs to the Legislature,” said F. Scott

McCown, who heads the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a

liberal-leaning think tank.

“By zeroing out every agency, he is admitting that he cannot

make budget recommendations to meet the state’s needs without

additional revenue,” McCown said.

The head of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy praised the idea

of starting the budget at zero, saying that no state agency should

begin the process expecting a sum because it may have received that

amount in the past.

“It’s a whole new day in Texas,” said Peggy Venable, executive

director of the conservative group. “It’s time to take a fresh look

at everything the state is spending money on and make the decision

as to whether it’s appropriate to continue these expenditures.”

Craddick, a veteran lawmaker who is beginning his first term

leading the sometimes fractious House, said the new way of

budgeting will give Texans a more informed look at how the state

spends money.

“We are committed to starting our budget at zero and ending

within available revenue, providing Texans with more detailed

information on how we spend their tax dollars,” said Craddick, of

Midland. “However, as the governor is well aware, the House is

comprised of 150 very diverse members.”

Molly Beth Malcolm, chairwoman of the Texas Democratic Party,

predicted that the “zero” recommendation is more likely to result

in chaos than in consensus.

“Gov. Perry and the Republicans campaigned promising leadership,

vision and experience,” Malcolm said. “The legislative session has

just started, and already Gov. Perry is again failing to lead, and

showing no vision at a time when the budget crunch demands tough



John Moritz, (512) 476-4294


1. Head shot:

Gov. Rick Perry