Rick Perry's Balanced-Budget Illusion

Now this is something I could really kick myself for. I can take being wrong. It's one thing to be accused of being too Pollyanna. (Not sure that has actually ever happened.) But the one thing I cannot forgive in myself is not being negative enough. That just should not been happening.

That's like ... what? Accusing Derek Holland of not being young enough? Mmm, maybe sort of. Bit of a reach.

But I did it. I wrote a piece for the October 6 newspaper, "Rick Perry's Manufactured Miracle," about the harsh truth behind some of Rick Perry's claims for the Texas economy. At one point I was trying to make the point that Perry and the Legislature create the illusion of small cheap government at the state level by pushing a lot of debt and obligation off on local governments.

Take things like schools and public infrastructure. Gotta have schools. Gotta have bridges. Somebody has to pay. If they shirk it in Austin, it just means we have to pick up the slack here at home.

Here's where I went way too soft. I cited some numbers from The Tax Foundation, a conservative think tank, showing that Texas has the next-to-lowest public debt per capita in the nation when you look only at state government. But when you add in local government debt, we jump up to 15th highest, putting us in the upper third of states with high public debt.

So guess what? A new study and some reporting by another newspaper indicate our debt situation in Texas under Perry is way worse than what I cited. Reporter Amantha Batheja has done a bang-up piece for the Star-Telegram uncovering all of the sleazy accounting tricks this last Legislature used to push its debt obligations out into the future while also collecting taxes ahead of schedule. One of her most striking findings has to do with that $7 billion Perry said he saved back for us in the state's Rainy Day Fund.

Nah. It's gone. The Perry budget didn't include $2 billion the state agrees it owes to schools and didn't include almost $5 billion the state and the feds agree Texas owes to Medicaid.


So it's like this: Let's balance our household budget by pretending we don't have to make two car payments every month. Or, hey, let's pretend we're all astronauts and then pretend we've gone to a planet where we don't owe any money to anybody. Problems solved, eh, Mofo?

But the bigger nail in my insufficiently dark version of things in the Perry piece comes from a piece released yesterday by an outfit called State Budget Solutions.

I'm a tad wobbly on these guys, because they don't disclose a list of directors or even a mailing address that I could find on their web page.

They say they're a "non-partisan, positive, pro-reform" non-profit interested in "reality-based budgeting." But aren't we all? I sent them a request for a list of their directors. We shall see.

Here's what I like about them. They offer not just sweeping generalizations but also a peek at the data on which they base their conclusions. And at the bottom of their spreadsheet, they do cite their sources.

They say if you want to know what a state really owes, you have to add up all of what it owes to its own pension funds and other public obligations, as well as gimmicks like the ones reported in the Star-Telegram.

When you do that for Texas, we're in the top five debtor states in the country with California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. We're actually in 48th place -- with California in 50th as the most debt-ridden. Our debt per capita ranking is not great -- 29th place.

Here's what I wonder. Could I get even more negative than these guys? Sure I can. As I say, I reported in my big Perry piece that the public debt per capita picture in Texas gets much worse when you expand your view to include local government debt.

It's the dark side of believing things are better left to local government. It just means the locals have to do the debt instead of Austin. Remember I said that local debt in Texas jumps us way up the list in terms of total debt per capita in the country?

So if you take this latest study showing us almost at the top of the list based just on state debt and then factor in local debt, we should we be way out ahead Number One in the nation for owing money.

In fact, I'm starting to wonder how Perry's Austin stacks up against that other place he likes to bash for not having its fiscal house in order -- Washington. Are we sure Texas does any better?