The state of Texas has money problems. In keeping with the gestalt of the place, they are big.
For the first time in nearly two decades, the state legislature convened here today with no budget surplus in hand.
Worse, the state comptroller has estimated that the $36.6 billion revenue projected for the 1986-87 biennium will fall $1.1 billion short of maintaining current levels of service.
Worse yet, the legislature just six months ago enacted the largest tax increase in state history, a $4.8 billion, three-year package to pay for education improvements and highway repairs.
Having taxed once, the legislators returned to Austin today for their 140-day biennial session in no mood to tax again.
"We will do with what we have or we will do without," House Speaker Gib Lewis (D) of Fort Worth told lawmakers in his welcoming address, echoing a sentiment expressed in recent days by Gov. Mark White (D) and Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby (D).
The Texas money crunch is emblematic of a dramatic turnaround in financial fortunes that has taken place in the past two years between the Sun Belt states -- especially those dependent on oil and gas revenues -- and the Frost Belt states.
While Texans are pondering whether to raise tuitions in the state university system and reduce the state payroll through attrition, New York is happily grappling with a budget surplus roughly the size of Texas' deficit, and Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota are coming off a year of economic recovery in which their legislatures all lowered taxes.
Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana -- the country's three biggest oil and gas states -- all raised taxes last year, and together they accounted for roughly three-quarters of the total tax increase enacted in 13 states in 1984. Fifteen states lowered their taxes last year.
Texas' money problems are easy to pinpoint. As recently as 1983, severance and sales tax revenue from the oil and gas industry accounted for 40 percent of all state income. This year, softening worldwide oil prices will reduce that take to 30 percent. By 1987, it is expected to be down to 25 percent.
For every $1 drop in the price of a barrel of crude, Texas loses $40 million a year in tax revenue. But declining prices are not its only oil problem. Production has been declining steadily since 1973 -- from 1.25 million barrels taken out of the ground that year to 850,000 a decade later.
The state is running out of oil. In the past decade, the implications of that stark geological fact have been masked by the enormous run-up in the price of crude. State revenues from the oil severance tax were $210 million in fiscal year 1973. By 1982, they had increased more than sixfold, to $1.3 billion.
Texas is one of only six states that levies no income tax of any kind, and its property and sales tax bites, even with last year's increase, remain small -- 46th in the nation, according to a U.S. Treasury Department survey.
Still, there is little talk here of raising taxes. Texas voters showed a strong conservative streak last November, reelecting President Reagan by 1.5 million votes and sending 16 new Republicans to the state house, upping the GOP total in that chamber to a record 53 out of 150.
"The temperature just isn't there for a tax increase," said State Sen. Bob McFarland (R) of Arlington. "The people spoke pretty clearly on Nov. 6."
At the moment, proposals are kicking around for sharp budget cuts in the rapidly improving university system, which, ironically, is being touted by many political and business leaders as the flagship that will eventually move the state away from dependence on oil and gas and toward a high tech economy.
One proposal by the Legislative Budget Board would cut funding for higher education by roughly a third -- forcing a sharp increase in tuitions. At present, Texas residents pay $462 a year in university tuition and fees, one-third the national average of $1,362.
To avoid a tax increase, the legislature will consider bills to legalize parimutuel betting on horse races and to create a state lottery. They are given a 50-50 chance of passing, despite strong Bible Belt opposition.