The session centered on the Montgomery County lawmakers' thoughts about the Texas COVID-19 pandemic response and any policy concerns heading into the 2021 Texas legislative session. The legislators said the pandemic will likely result in a difficult year of fiscal planning for the Texas Legislature and local governments throughout the state. They anticipate budget shortfalls stemming from ongoing efforts to stop the spread of the virus, including the temporary economic shutdown.
"We definitely know that the budget is going to be a concern for everyone. Last session we came into the legislative session with the comptroller certifying more than $8 billion in additional revenue than we had had the previous two-year biennium. This is going to be a very different outlook," Creighton said. "How we handle the major budget drivers, health care and public education, higher education and the major components of the budget going through, this will be difficult."
Toth likened next year's budgeting approach to the legislature's work following the economic downturn of 2009, and he credited Creighton for his involvement in that session's zero-based budgeting and 15% overall cut. With a focus on the state budget and the coronavirus, the legislators said other priorities that will likely arise include a continued focus on the state's economy, public health and education.
"We’ve done this before after the subprime crash in ‘08 and ‘09 in what was called the 'Great Recession' then. We’re going to have a similar budget outlook this time around," Creighton said. "With the budget, tax structure, workforce initiatives, definitely health care policy and how we handle this day and age of public education with online learning and the way the universities are evolving toward that as well. ... I think we’re going to have our hands full as we always do.”
The legislators also said any recovery of the Texas economy and unemployment will hinge on the reopening of some industries and the willingness of state residents to return to work and resume consumption activity.
“The timing of our recovery and how fast we can get back to being the economic engine that Texas normally is, and provides for the nation and the rest of the world, it’s up to us," Creighton said. "Consumer confidence drives the economy. ... We have to figure out a way to inspire people to understand that they can feel comfortable getting back out into their normal routines."
Economic recovery—even with further legislative support—would prove difficult without inspiring that consumer confidence, he said.
"If people are going to be conditioned to stay in and to hold back and to not spend and to say, ‘Maybe next year,’ it’s going to be very difficult for government to really ignite anything that is significant," Creighton said.
Toth and Creighton each said that providing for public schools and universities through their shift to continued online learning would also be a challenging priority over the coming year given the budget outlook.
"It’s going to mean some hard cuts, some difficult, painful cuts, while at the same time too we’re trying to make sure that we do everything we can to not hurt education and to make sure that our teachers have whatever they need for the coming school year," Toth said. "All levels of government are going to have to tighten their belt. This is going to be a tough ride for government.”
A continued focus on property appraisals will be a goal next spring as well, they said, as a follow-up to last year's property tax reform package Senate Bill 2.
COVID-19 in Texas
Toth said increased reports of depression and substance-abuse issue have become unintended side effects of isolation caused by government coronavirus responses, and that he hopes treatment of those issues can be included in the lawmakers' health care and social discussions going forward.
"We have to be cognizant of this and not just look at the health challenge of COVID-19," he said. "The hard part of it is that very rarely does government go back and look backwards to see what they did wrong and to see how many people were hurt as a result of it. ... These are going to be the forgotten people, these are going to be the forgotten deaths, and I think we all need to take that into consideration."
Toth and Creighton said that Texas overall has seen less proportional COVID-19 cases and related deaths than other large states or metropolitan areas across the country. They also credited the response of Montgomery County residents and health care providers this spring, especially when compared with earlier Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation modeling about the potential for viral spread in the area. As of May 14, the county public health district reported 483 active COVID-19 cases, 272 recoveries and 18 deaths out of 773 total confirmed cases.
"What was forecast did not happen. That, here in Montgomery County, we were told that by April 24 we would see 100,000 cases and that we would be growing by 20,000 a day. We were told that we could have upwards of 8,000 people hospitalized with hundreds and hundreds of deaths," Toth said. "I think that if you look at large counties in the state of Texas, I don’t know of a county that's done better than we have. We’ve done a great job. And that’s not thanks to the government, it's not thanks to the elected officials, it’s thanks to the responsible nature in which the residents in this county have taken care of one another and looked after one another.”
Creighton also credited the local response based on previous projections, and said that some disaster or pandemic response plans may need to be adjusted to allow for more local approaches in the future given how the situation in Texas has played out so far.
"Containment and mitigation, with what we knew at the time, was the road that we needed to travel down," he said. "We’ve also learned that we need more of a regional approach to be able to respond and be nimble and flexible once we understand that the data shows that we just were not impacted by this like the northeastern part of the country and other parts of the world."