Naked City

Cash Falls From Sky at Lege

On March 29 -- curiously enough, the day after the business-friendly tort-reform package (see "Capitol Chronicle") passed the Texas House -- Appropriations Committee Chair Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, and Health and Human Services Subcommittee Chair Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, announced they had discovered $2.75 billion in new money for health and human services programs. In principle, the additional funds could mean that only 250,000 Texas children, instead of half a million, would lose their health insurance. Instead of cutting Medicaid reimbursements to providers by one-third, they would only be cut by 5%. And funding for programs serving the elderly and disabled, the mentally ill or retarded, and AIDS/HIV patients would also be partially restored -- or rather, less radically cut.

Heflin and Wohlgemuth were vague, however, on the source of the additional funds, which would close more than 25% of the state's official $9.9 billion projected budget gap. Heflin told reporters the money came from extending recently announced budget cuts and additional savings suggested by state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn -- although heretofore those massive cuts in major programs were deemed necessary simply to make the budget balance, or even to meet the state's obligations this fiscal year. The mystery deepened Monday, when Democrats on the Appropriations Committee tried to elucidate the magical bookkeeping and got nowhere. "Maybe it's manna from heaven," said one member after a two-hour delay for back-room consultations over the pending budget proposal.

When the committee reconvened, several Dems said they simply could not vote for a budget that would remove thousands of people from health care programs, including 17,000 pregnant women from prenatal care and 55,000 disabled elderly from home-health services. Heflin wanted a unanimous vote to take to the House floor, where substantive budget changes are extremely difficult, but four Democrats insisted on being listed as "present not voting": Galveston's Craig Eiland, McAllen's Roberto Gutierrez, Harlingen's Jim Solis, and Austin's Dawnna Dukes. Wohlgemuth told the committee that the suggestion (by other legislators) that the "new funding" is a public-relations chimera has put "a burr under my saddle."

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