DALLAS — Despite Republican leaders’ efforts to downplay the record budget shortfall facing Texas, the state’s funding gap is one of the worst in the nation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The conservatively estimated $13.4 billion shortfall in Texas for fiscal 2012 beginning Sept. 1 represents 31.5% of current spending, the third worst behind New Jersey and Nevada.

In the current fiscal year ending Aug. 31, the $4.3 billion deficit in Texas is 10.1% of the budget, the largest of any state.

The upcoming fiscal year is one of most difficult budget years on record. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia are projecting budget shortfalls that together total $112 billion for fiscal 2012, according to the center.

“One reason these gaps are so daunting is that states’ options for addressing them are fewer and more difficult,” the report said. “Federal assistance for states, which has been enormously helpful in allowing states to avert some of the most harmful potential budget cuts, will be largely gone by the end of fiscal year 2011, the current fiscal year.”

The states’ 2012 budget problems come on the heels of two tough years, the budget center noted. Shortfalls for 2009 and 2010 and most of the deficit for 2011 — which totaled over $430 billion combined — have already been closed through a combination of spending cuts, withdrawals from reserves, revenue increases, and the use of federal stimulus dollars.

In Texas, Republican leaders have blamed most of the state’s problems on Washington, calling for a federal balanced-budget amendment.

Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday that federal programs have forced the state to spend money it doesn’t have.

“They’ve even attempted to bribe us with our own money,” Perry said of the Obama administration. “We’ve resisted the lure of taking federal funding that would’ve forced us to blindly adopt national education standards, and tied our hands in the way we administer unemployment benefits.”

Lieut. Gov. David Dewhurst has disparaged statements that the state faces a $27 billion funding gap for 2012, which is based on all agency budget requests compared to projected revenue.

“At this point, we know that the budget shortfall for the current 2010-2011 biennium is $4.3 billion, but any further speculation about future spending is just that — speculation,” Dewhurst said. “I think that when we pass the final budget, it will be reminiscent of 2003 when people said there was a $10-$16 billion shortfall because some wanted $10-$16 billion in new spending.”

As in other states, the economy of Texas has shown signs of improvement. Comptroller Susan Combs said the state’s sales tax revenue in February grew for the 11th straight month, to $1.75 billion, an increase of 9.7% compared to February 2010. Higher oil prices are also expected to benefit Texas and other petroleum-producing states.

The employment picture also improved as Texas’ total nonfarm employment rose by 44,100 jobs in January, representing the addition of 253,900 jobs from a year ago. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for January is 8.3%, unchanged from December 2010, and well below the U.S. unemployment rate for January of 9%.

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