Less Is Still Less
A budgetary snapshot of the legislative session reflects some progress, dim prospects
Thus far, the state budget headlines have been dominated by the potential effects of proposed cuts to public education. Those numbers hit Austin hard: More than a thousand school district employees could lose their jobs, and as many as a dozen schools might be closed. The news reverberated throughout districts statewide too, and Texans abruptly learned what the conservative mantra of "balancing the budget without new taxes" really means in their communities.
The proposed school cuts have generated widespread public reaction – with a confounding but predictable twist. A poll last week by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune reflected that Texans want spending cuts – but not to their favorite programs. As UT government professor Daron Shaw put it, "We really want to slash the budget, but not anything in it" – and anything, by sizable margins, includes education, health care, environmental regulation, highways, and even prisons.
Legislators have been hearing committee testimony to that effect all month.
Beyond this public ambivalence, one simple gauge of the reasonableness of a government budget is its likely effects on the most vulnerable Texans. By that standard, the draft budgets currently under consideration fail miserably. Last week the collaborative of Central Texas human services organizations, One Voice, tabulated some of the human consequences of the current budget proposals on the people its nearly 40 organizations – from AIDS Services of Austin to the YWCA – attempt to serve. Here are a select few of the lowlights, with conservative estimates (see the PDF posted with "Health Care: Flirting With Armageddon" for the entire list):
• Austin Children's Shelter would lose 1,000 days of beds available for abused or neglected children.
• Any Baby Can would have to end child abuse prevention services in Hays, Bastrop, and Caldwell counties.
• Arc of the Capital Area would lose Medicaid benefits for more than 450 clients with disabilities; in-home service cuts would threaten living arrangements for another 400.
• Medicaid reimbursement cuts would slash Hospice Austin, People's Community Clinic, Settlement Home for Children.
• 1,750 chronically mentally ill adults and 250 children would lose city/county services; another 1,300 are still on waiting lists.
Of course, as the report points out, there are alternatives of a sort: Many of those same people "will subsequently be referred to more expensive ... hospital emergency rooms & local jails."
In that light, it's crucial to emphasize that despite the insistence by state officials that such draconian cuts are necessary in the name of "fiscal austerity," in fact the persistent costs of community services are being pushed downward upon local governments with fewer potential resources than the state. That's the case with public education, where already underfunded school districts will be spreading layoffs and recession on their neighborhoods; in health care, where cuts to Medicaid providers and the Children's Health Insurance Program will mean more emergency hospital costs and higher property taxes; in environmental deregulation, where already disgraceful state negligence will even more negatively affect communities from Houston to El Paso; even in public safety, where prison and rehab cutbacks will inevitably lead to higher crime rates and more expenses.
After much initial bluster that the state has no choice but to cut roughly a quarter of its discretionary spending – despite a $27 billion hole just to maintain current services – in recent days cooler GOP heads have been suggesting that there must be a better way. Republican leaders – Steve Ogden and Robert Duncan in the Senate, John Zerwas in the House, among others – have suggested that the inclement weather is sufficient to spend at least some of the $9.6 billion reserve known as the Rainy Day Fund. And Ogden and Duncan have both suggested some kind of fix for the failing business-franchise tax that was supposed to provide the revenue lost in the last round of property tax cuts.
That's not exactly a groundswell, and Gov. Rick Perry's presidential ambitions may hold hostage any such GOP drift toward rationality – ruthlessness wins Republican primaries. But the public pressure to save the schools shows no signs of diminishing – the next big test will be the Capitol and statewide rallies planned for March 12 – and it seems increasingly likely some new funding (Rainy Day, tax fixes, fee increases, perhaps even some casino gambling) will be found.
Nevertheless, the raw numbers remain grim. Let's presume that reason prevails and the budget committees find another $15 billion or so (a generous estimate) in additional funding. That would still leave another $12 billion hole or larger, just to maintain the state's already stingy services, from health care to historical preservation, universities to parks. And the same voters who say they don't want higher taxes also say they don't want to cut all these essential public services. We're caught in the contradiction of politicians' and political parties' free-lunch rhetoric and the willfully ignorant biennial refrain that simply cutting "waste and fraud" will float all boats.
We've asked the Chronicle News staff for a Lege session update this week, with a primary focus on the budgetary matters, as the budget discussion has overshadowed every other political distraction (e.g., voter ID, ultrasounds, eminent domain). They've monitored hearings, talked to legislators, listened to advocates. With the session roughly a third completed (not counting perhaps inevitable summer specials), what follows is a moving snapshot of the current budgetary landscape on the various big-ticket items. (Plus there's additional reporting at austinchronicle.com/legeland.)
While we can't say it's reassuring reading, we hope that an informed public is more likely to be an engaged one. Make your voices heard.