Texas lawmakers begin spirited debate over budget
by EMILY RAMSHAW
The Texas Tribune
Lawmakers still have months to determine the gory details of the shrinking Texas budget. But as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, laid out the first grim round of proposed cuts on Wednesday — aimed at balancing the budget without new taxes or tapping the Rainy Day Fund — even some of his Republican colleagues couldn’t stifle their objections. House Democrats went a step further, calling the cuts “akin to asking an anorexic person to lose more weight.”
Pitts didn’t sugarcoat the proposed cuts, which strike a potentially devastating blow to public education and health care, eliminate 9,000 state jobs and shutter two state institutions for people with disabilities, one prison unit and three Texas Youth Commission lock-ups. He acknowledged the cuts are painful, and that this budget proposal slashes every state function that isn’t a completely necessary service. But he said it accomplishes the goal of balancing the budget without new revenue or touching the Rainy Day Fund — and said lawmakers should be able to finish their work on it within the regular legislative session.
The budget, which seeks to meet the state’s budget shortfall, estimated at between $15 billion and $27 billion, “represents the priorities the speaker and I stated months ago,” Pitts said. “This budget must live within the available revenue. It must not rely on the use of the Rainy Day Fund. It must not rely on new tax revenue. It must reflect limited government. We have accomplished all of these things.”
But some Republicans fired back over a proposal to shutter entirely four community colleges — which they said was being treated as a done deal, instead of as a mere suggestion. And Democrats sounded off loudly over plans to slash Medicaid reimbursement rates and cut pre-kindergarten programs and financial aid, while border security funding remained largely intact. Meanwhile, the special-interest groups are just getting started.
“Reductions of this magnitude will seriously jeopardize access to health care and shift more health care costs to local governments and insured Texans,” said Dan Stultz, president and CEO of the Texas Hospital Association.
Added Laura Guerra-Cardus, the associate director of the Children’s Defense Fund – Texas: “A budget that relies on cuts alone will cost thousands of jobs, have devastating consequences for our children’s health and education and deny Texans the opportunity to have any meaningful discussion about our true priorities.”
At $156.4 billion, the first run at the budget is $31.1 billion smaller than its predecessor — a 16.6 percent drop.
In health care, it cuts the rates doctors and hospitals are paid for treating Medicaid patients by 10 percent, and doesn’t include funding for population growth, rising costs or spiking utilization rates. The cuts represent a nearly 25 percent savings in overall spending on health and human services.
In public education, the cuts are so deep they fall $9.8 billion short of meeting the state’s current school finance formulas. The proposed budget does not include funding for the increased number of students or a decline in property values statewide. The cuts represent a $7 billion drop from current spending levels. Meanwhile, public safety and criminal justice spending would drop 12.7 percent, falling $1.5 billion from current levels.
Other cost-saving and efficiency measures recommended by the Legislative Budget Board, which revealed the budget to lawmakers on Tuesday night, include lifting the ban on Sunday liquor sales and tying the summer sales tax holiday to the state’s financial condition.
EMILY RAMSHAW writes for the Texas Tribune, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury