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By Meghan Ashford-Grooms April 20, 2012

David Dewhurst says state general revenue spending has dropped about 11% on his watch

On the defensive several times during the April 13, 2012, Republican U.S. Senate debate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst countered a charge that he has never cut the budget by saying he has done just that numerous times and "by billions and billions of dollars."

Dewhurst was responding to fellow Senate hopeful Ted Cruz, who questioned Dewhurst’s record by saying that "in (Dewhurst’s) entire tenure in elected office, he has never once cut one penny from the state budget."

Dewhurst replied that Cruz, a Houston lawyer, was wrongly focusing on the size of the total state budget — including state and federal funds — when he should be zeroing in on expenditures of state revenue, often called general revenue, which Dewhurst described as "the only money that we can control."

"Every conservative group that I have ever worked with has said, ‘Governor, don’t increase your general revenue spending more than inflation and population growth,’" Dewhurst said. "Not only did we do better than that, but we have cut it 10.7 percent."

Elsewhere, we’re fact-checking Cruz’s charge that Dewhurst hasn’t cut a penny from the budget. Here, we’ll dig into Dewhurst’s statement that when adjusted for inflation and population growth, general revenue spending has declined nearly 11 percent while he’s led the Senate.

First, a note on Dewhurst’s methodology. Limiting spending increases to the sum of inflation and population growth is advocated by small-government groups as one way to ward off what they see as excessive spending. It’s a way to keep per-resident spending from increasing other than through inflation.

As backup for Dewhurst’s debate claim, his campaign sent us a spreadsheet containing details on overall state government expenditures per two-year budget period, as well as the subcategory of general revenue. The figures for the current biennium, 2012-13, are estimates. The spreadsheet also includes the historical expenditure figures adjusted for population and inflation. (The same figures are in a chart in a January 2012 report from the Legislative Budget Board, which advises lawmakers on budgetary matters.)

First, we looked at how overall spending, including state and federal funds, has changed since Dewhurst became lieutenant governor in early 2003. The estimated "all funds" expenditures for 2012-13 of $173 billion are nearly 50 percent greater than such spending in 2002-03, which was the last two-year budget period before Dewhurst assumed his gavel-wielding post.

However, according to the report, once the 2012-13 figure is adjusted for inflation and population growth over the intervening years, "all funds" spending is actually down about 2.4 percent from 2002-03.

Next, we looked at general revenue. According to the board’s figures, the estimated 2012-13 general revenue spending level is about 36 percent greater than the 2002-03 spending level. But adjusted for inflation and population growth, general revenue spending is estimated to be down about 11.5 percent, according to the report. That’s pretty close to the 10.7 percent that Dewhurst cited at the debate.

Open and shut case?

Not exactly. We spotted several wrinkles.

For instance, general revenue spending, adjusted for inflation and population growth, did not drop in every biennium once Dewhurst began presiding over the Senate. According to the budget board’s report, adjusted general revenue spending, when compared to the previous biennium, rose twice and dropped three times. The biggest drop came in 2004-05, when adjusted general revenue spending declined 9.6 percent. The highest increase came in 2008-09, when the level rose 10.8 percent.

More significantly, the estimated spending levels for 2012-13 in Dewhurst’s backup material and the budget board’s report fail to account for more than $6 billion in spending that the 2011 Legislature, in a maneuver to help balance the budget, pushed into the next biennium.

It was much-reported during the 2011 legislative session that lawmakers failed to appropriate enough state money to cover projected Medicaid costs for 2012-13. The budget board’s report says it is expected that the 2013 Legislature will have to put more money — estimated at about $4 billion — into the program to help pay for "the last four to five months of fiscal year 2013." The report says the amount of money needed could vary based on factors such as the size of the state’s caseload and medical costs.

That’s not all. Also as widely reported, lawmakers reduced spending on public education in the 2012-13 budget in part by delaying a regular $2.3 billion state payment to school districts by several days, pushing it from the end of the 2013 fiscal year into the next budget cycle.

We wondered how these maneuvers might be inflating the general-revenue reduction proclaimed by Dewhurst — and made a run at rolling the postponed education payment and Medicaid costs into the estimated 2012-13 general revenue spending figures in the board report. We then adjusted for inflation and population growth using the same factors as the board staff and compared our new 2012-13 figure with the 2002-03 spending level.

Our finding: Estimated general revenue spending in 2012-13 still appears to be less than such spending in 2002-03. However, the difference is 4.7 percent — not the 10.7 percent Dewhurst cited at the debate or the 11.5 percent aired by his campaign.

Our ruling

Dewhurst’s debate claim that state general revenue spending dropped by 10.7 percent on his watch is close to the 11.5 percent reduction that a comparison of 2012-13 estimated spending to 2002-03 spending yields.

But that result is misleading, too simplistic.

First, it overlooks changes — up and down — in general revenue spending, adjusted for inflation and population growth, between each of the preceding two-year budgets. Second, the spending figure for 2012-13 does not account for more than $6 billion in state costs postponed to the next budget period. Rolling in those costs, making for a closer-to-realistic accounting of costs in the latest Dewhurst-touched budget, shrinks the difference of 11.5 percent to 4.7 percent.

We rate Dewhurst’s claim Half True.

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Our Sources

WFAA-TV, debate, Republican U.S. Senate candidates, April 13, 2012 (go to 12:20 mark)

Spreadsheet from David Dewhurst campaign, "Trends in state government expenditures" (received April 16, 2012)

Legislative Budget Board, report, Fiscal Size-up, 2012-13 biennium, January 2012

PolitiFact Texas, Truth-O-Meter item, "Rick Perry says Texas leaders cut $15 billion from state budget," Nov. 14, 2011

Dallas Morning News, blog post, "When Dewhurst says he’s shrunk budget by 11 percent, he uses 2 tricks," Nov. 17, 2011

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More by Meghan Ashford-Grooms

David Dewhurst says state general revenue spending has dropped about 11% on his watch

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