Sen. Menéndez says Texas needs a holistic approach to budget surplus

SAN ANTONIO — Texas has a good problem on its hands.

As state lawmakers prepare for the 2023 legislative session, the state is looking at an unprecedented budget surplus.

In July, Comptroller Glenn Hegar projected that the state would have $27 billion in excess revenue for the upcoming biennium. Last month, Hegar hinted that the windfall could turn out to be considerably higher than that.

Budget shortfalls leave you with few options. Budget surpluses create new options, but they can also lead to intense philosophical debates.

We saw it a few months ago in San Antonio, with council members and local activists arguing over what to do with $75 million in surplus CPS Energy revenue: Should the city give it back to ratepayers or use it for climate mitigation?

At the state level, the questions are particularly challenging.

Texas has more uninsured residents and more people behind bars than any other state. We’re grappling with a teacher shortage and mediocre educational performance. The state also has done a consistently poor job of addressing mental-health and foster-care issues.

At the same time, Texas residents are also getting hammered by high property taxes. There is a legislative contingent, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, that would like to devote a major part of the projected surplus to tax relief.

State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, tends to reject simple answers. He’s most comfortable looking for the nuance in policy debates. You can sense that he’s working through all the relevant nuances when it comes to the budget surplus.

“I’ve been there when we’ve had money, when we’ve been broke and in-between. The reality is that obviously this money is not our money. It’s not the state’s money. It’s the citizens’ (money),” Menéndez said during an interview on the Express-News’ Puro Politics podcast.

Menéndez has served in the state Legislature for 22 years and previously spent two terms representing the West Side on City Council.

In 2015, when Leticia Van de Putte gave up her Senate seat to run for San Antonio mayor, Menéndez pulled together a bipartisan coalition of voters that carried him to a special-election win over his old friend and colleague, Trey Martinez Fischer.

Menéndez said he has always regarded his top priority as an elected official to be a good steward of taxpayer money. Defining that term is where the nuance comes in.

“What does that mean? It doesn’t mean always making just the easy, knee-jerk reactions,” Menéndez said. “Like some politicians will say, ‘Just give it all back.’

“And we’ve heard some people say give at least half of it back. Then others will say ‘No, no we need to invest it or spend it” — whichever word you want to choose — on these priorities.”

Menéndez said state lawmakers should approach the surplus issue the same way they would think about their own family’s budget.

“In our own family budget, if you got a bonus at work or something, we would place a value proposition on what are the needs you’ve put off that you can finally take care of. And I think that the state of Texas has got a lot of those.”

Menéndez is open to tax relief and likes Patrick’s proposal to hike the Residence Homestead Exemption from $40,000 to $60,000 or $65,000, a move which would have its biggest impact on working-class Texas families.

But he also thinks about the budget in the holistic terms of the late American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of innate human needs, which posits that self-actualization can only be achieved if our fundamental needs are met.

It’s clear that Menéndez thinks a deeper investment in education — including improved pay for teachers — is central to the state reaching its potential.

“We need to look at the realities that are facing us and we need to look at where can we invest money that will reap dividends in the future, long-term,” he said. “And I’m not talking about financial dividends. The most important things for our state are that we are a healthy state that’s educated.

“If our population is healthy and has food security, Maslow’s basic needs are met, then those kids can learn. And once we can have kids reading on grade level, we’re not going to have to worry about them dropping out in high school. Then we’re not going to have to worry about building more prisons.”| Twitter: @gilgamesh470