Every Texan Gets $900! And Other Ideas for the State’s Massive Surplus – Texas Monthly

Every Texan Gets $900! And Other Ideas for the State’s Massive Surplus – Texas Monthly

Back in Austin for their biennial party under the pink dome, Texas lawmakers will have a nice present in January: a whopping, quite likely record-setting $27 billion surplus.

To put it in context, that is enough money to send every Texan on a seven-day Western Caribbean cruise out of Galveston, with an ocean view (but not unlimited drinks.) It is also enough to blast every member of the state house and senate into space on a Jeff Bezos rocket launched from Van Horn. We could even pay double to keep them up there for a spell.

In home-economics terms, imagine if your family budget was $100,000. This is like having an extra $22,000 drop into your lap. Put another way: if the $27 billion was divided equally, every man, woman, and child in Texas would get $900, plus or minus a couple of quarters.

This surplus doesn’t even include the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund” (officially known as the Economic Stabilization Fund), which has reached the never-before-seen level of $14.1 billion. But there are statutory limits on when our elected officials can tap into that pile of cash generated from oil- and gas-production taxes. By contrast, the $27 billion surplus, created when sales-tax receipts and other tax collections exceeded expectations, is unencumbered. State lawmakers can do with it whatever they please.

There are plenty of ideas already swirling like sugarplums in the heads of our statesmen and stateswomen. The two biggest dogs in the kennel, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, have called for giving some of it back in the form of property tax relief. (They differ on exactly how much, with Patrick proposing to spend less than the governor on tax relief, and more on fixing the power grid. Refunding property taxes, instead of sales taxes, would benefit their wealthier donors with expensive homes more than the average Texan.) Comptroller Glenn Hegar has argued for using the windfall not just on the grid, but also on a one-time investment in the state’s roads and high-speed internet backbone. 

Before lawmakers get their hands on the money, we here at Texas Monthly decided to ask a bunch of Texans how they thought we should spend the surplus. It is, after all, Texans’ money. Our approach might sound unscientific and unrepresentative. And so it is. But then again, so is the Texas Legislature. After all, our elected officials met behind closed doors in the fall of 2021 to redraw their districts in such a way that only a few would ever even so much as sniff a contested general election. 

So in the same spirit of unaccountability, we called and texted and emailed an unrepresentative sampling of Texans to see how they thought we should spend some, or all, of the money. Their answers were, by and large, considered and insightful. In other words, we didn’t ask a single elected official.

Jarrett Worrell, a twelve-year-old in the Hill Country’s Mason County and a fifth-generation cattle rancher, said Texas should provide seed money for more livestock shows. For him, a sustainable future means raising Texans who can put food on the table; the shows, he said, help familiarize both rural and urban Texans with the benefits of ranching. “We need to educate those that are going to feed us for many generations,” Worrell wrote in an email. 

At the other end of the generational spectrum is legendary Houston socialite Joanne Herring, 93 years young. Herring said we should spend more on teaching job skills in school. “Set up teaching facilities to teach plumbing, electrician, welding, computer skills, aided by companies desperate for workers,” she said. Herring knows a thing or two about how to use government money to get things done. In the 1980s, she was part of a trio, which included hard-drinking East Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, who used federal money to arm the mujahideen in Afghanistan, speeding the downfall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War.

Herring’s emphasis on job skills was echoed by Jim McIngvale, aka Mattress Mack, who I reached by phone at his store in Houston. “We should be investing in job training and job-retention skills because I truly believe that work is life’s greatest therapy and people who are deprived of the joy of work are deprived of one of the greatest joys of life,” he said.

Down in Laredo, Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, was thinking about a hotter, drier future and what the state could do to be ready. She noted that her city of 250,000 Texans is entirely dependent on the river for its water. “It’s a highly distressed river system that is starting to suffer from intensifying drought and rising temperatures,” she said. Cortez wants money to flow to projects that help preserve what may be Texas’s most precious resource. “Part of this money should go toward water security and climate adaptability,” she said. 

Other Texans talked about using the money to make up for past underfunding. “Retired teachers in Texas have not received a [cost-of-living adjustment] since 2004,” said Jane Hunt, a retired English and theater teacher in Ingleside, near Corpus Christi. Food and energy prices keep climbing, but not retirees’ monthly checks. This is not just hurting the retirees, she said, but also turning away future teachers. “We should take care of teachers, the most important profession,” Hunt said. “After all, Jesus was a teacher.”

Education was on many minds. “I don’t know the exact solution, but I think Texas should invest in our future by investing in our children,” said Cary Brown, managing partner of the Midland-based Moriah Group, which has substantial investments in real estate and oil-and-gas production. “Many of our young students missed a full year of in-person instruction due to COVID. Teachers are facing the unprecedented challenge of catching these kids up to reading at grade level.”

Chris Shepherd is the founding director of the Southern Smoke Foundation in Houston, which helps food-and-beverage workers in crisis. He said that in recent years, his nonprofit has helped Texans who suffered from the ERCOT blackout and Hurricane Harvey. The state can help prevent people from being devastated, he said, by fixing the grid, building the Ike Dike, and increasing funding for health care. “I always say that Southern Smoke is a success when we’re no longer needed,” he said. “The state of Texas can help us get there.” 

There are lots of good ideas out there. But Texas, of course, has a long tradition of keeping its government small and poorly funded. In all likelihood, that will continue as much of our once-in-a-generation $27 billion bonanza is handed over to property owners in the coming session. But if lawmakers want to listen to Texans, they’ll be more inclined to think big—a way of thinking that this state has deep in its DNA, after all. They’d listen to folks like Herring, or Cortez, or Mattress Mack. Or to Michael Skelly, a Houston energy developer. “I’d plant a billion trees,” Skelly said. “Texas is hot in the summertime, but in shade it’s pretty manageable. The trees would help cool our cities and beautify our state.”

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