by ROSS RAMSEY
The Texas Tribune
Here’s how Jim Pitts interprets the Election Day results: “We’re making huge cuts,” the Waxahachie Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee told a hometown Tea Party group last week.
The legislative session starts in January, but Pitts and other finance types have been at work for months. Now they’re finding out whether voters really want the cuts they seemed to be demanding when they went to the polls.
Pitts told the crowd that the state is studying Medicaid and other forms of government-run health care with the idea of getting out of it. A man in the audience mentioned a friend on the program and asked whether lawmakers would “throw him out on the street.”
“If we did exactly what we’re doing today, we wouldn’t be throwing him out on the street,” Pitts answered. “But if we have any savings on getting out of Medicaid, we will have to throw some people out in the street. I’m not telling you that your friend would be, but the eligibility to receive state benefits will go down.
“Let me be sure that I said that right,” Pitts continued. “Fewer people will be on our Medicaid rolls if we get out and have some savings.”
The initial budget he and his fellow budget writers will present a few weeks from now will eliminate some state agencies, make large cuts to others — “75 or 80 percent,” he said — and might include furloughs of state employees. Lawmakers, at least in that first version, will balance the budget without tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
A few days after Pitts’ remarks, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said there’s “a silver lining” in the budget problems because they force the state to go through its finances looking for savings “to find out what programs are not really working, that no longer have the priority that they did when the program was passed.”
The message is clear: There’s carnage ahead. Pitts is getting his local folks ready for the impact, laying out specific cuts so that people who generally like the idea of smaller government can get a look at which services they and their families and friends and communities would actually have to give up.
The state can’t afford to provide the services and programs it currently promises — that’s why there’s a shortfall — and voters and the people who campaigned for their support for the last year clearly don’t like the idea of new taxes. Cuts are a way out.
Pitts’ comments tee up that solution a couple of months before lawmakers hit Austin to actually write the budget. He makes clear the challenge at the center of the conversation: Less than half of the $182.2 billion biennial state budget is unrestricted, with education and health and human service programs accounting for most of that discretionary spending.
In fact, if you put education and health and human services off to one side and cut everything else in state government — from the governor’s office to the Savings and Mortgage Lending Department, from Parks & Wildlife to prisons, from the Department of Transportation to the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, from courts to the Lottery Commission — you would have pared only $7.3 billion from the discretionary part of the budget.
Even the rosiest estimates of the state’s budget shortfall are bigger than that, and the professional doomsayers are talking about a number three times that amount.
When they toss those figures around, lawmakers aren’t including federal funds and other monies; they’re just talking about the part they can control. Of the $80.6 billion in those accounts in the current budget, $35.2 billion goes to public education, $13.7 billion goes to higher education and $24.4 billion goes to health and human services.
You simply can’t get to the bottom line without cutting inside those programs. State revenue will grow some — the comptroller will estimate how much as the session starts. But cuts are the order of the day.
Pitts and Dewhurst and the others have to figure out how to give voters the smaller government they want without killing something they want to keep.
ROSS RAMSEY is an editor for The Texas Tribune, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.