TxDOT revenue short fall expected to delay some construction projects

AUSTIN — Is Texas going broke’ That was the chilling prospect raised by state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston during the first interim meeting of the Senate Finance Committee Oct. 24. “Is it not about time to start telling people we’re broke'” the Democratic lawmaker asked of James LeBas of the Comptroller’s Office. “When I travel the state and talk to folks, they don’t have a clue we’re as broke as we are.” LeBas told the committee that the state was facing a $3 billion to $5 billion budget shortfall by the time the Legislature convenes again in January 2003. This considerably less than optimistic projection could get even worse. “There is a level of risk hanging over this revenue estimate that is not fully understood at this point,” LeBas said. Even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he noted, Texas’ economy had been slowing along with the rest of the nation. Since that landmark day, consumer spending has decreased, further impacting the level of state sales tax revenue. As jitters continue amid anthrax scares and actual contaminations, consumer confidence could erode more. Announcements of job layoffs in Texas and elsewhere in the nation seem to come daily. The state’s unemployment is higher than the national average. Another factor influencing the big picture, not yet getting any media attention, is increased state spending as Texas’ government tightens security and increases preparedness. At minimum, budgets for the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Adjutant General’s Department already are being affected. But the state’s budget trouble is not all connected to the aftermath of the terrorists or even the sluggish state of the economy prior to the attacks. Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander has said that long-term spending commitments, coupled with an ever-increasing population, have affected the budget picture. The situation should be in a little better focus when her office releases sales tax collection data for October, the first full month after the attacks. As Rylander’s office keeps a worried eye on income, other signs of budget worries are apparent. The Parks and Wildlife Department is pondering various fee increases, the possibilities ranging from hunting and fishing licenses to park entrance fees and boat registration and titling costs. At the Texas Department of Transportation, as reported here last week, construction projects have been put on hold as well as merit raises for the agency’s 14,500 employees. One way to save bucks Understandably lost amid much more pressing news was October being National Energy Awareness Month. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs is reminding Texans that they can save a lot of money on their utility bills by making sure their homes are weatherized. Heating and cooling, the federal Department of Energy says, amounts to up to 70 percent of household energy usage. To lower monthly bills, TDHC recommends, weatherize your house, set water heaters at 120 degrees, insulate water pipes, use low flow shower heads and toilets, keep thermostats set lower in winter and higher in summer and replace old appliances with more energy efficient models. That step also will bring Texas a little more tax revenue.

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