OPED–Visions for Lone Star Lawmakers

This weekend, Eva’s piece ran in the Austin American-Statesman’s Legislative Preview series:
We believe in Texas. We believe in the people of Texas. We know it’s hard for families, especially Texas families, to admit that they need and ask for help. Recently, we documented five Texas families’ stories as they struggle to make ends meet (find the video at youtube.com/cpppvideo), and we’ve seen firsthand the resiliency and motivation they, and others like them, have to make a better life for themselves and their children.
But this is a responsibility we all share. As the Legislature begins the 2013 session, we urge our leaders to accept that responsibility.
Our state leaders have the chance to restore and improve investments in our public education and health care systems that have helped millions of Texans. Just as families are working every day to get themselves back on their feet, the state must do the same.
The legislative session that started Tuesday will see thousands of bills filed and debated, but the only ones that must pass before September 2013 are the spending measures that determine the state budget for 2014 and 2015. Coming up with a state budget that better reflects our priorities, strengthens our communities, supports us when we need it most and contributes to a more vibrant economy should be job No. 1 for all House and Senate members. That means working for quality affordable health care, good jobs and improvements in child well-being. It also means undoing the damaging cuts made to programs created specifically for sick babies and struggling working families.
The strongest parts of Texas communities are our more than 1,000 school districts and charter schools, which unfortunately are still reeling from the $5.3 billion in cuts that the Legislature made in 2011. These cuts extended the recession by causing both public- and private-sector job losses, slowing the pace of economic recovery. In just the first school year (2011-12) of the current state budget, the cuts forced districts throughout Texas to lay off more than 25,000 teachers and support staff and to obtain waivers to exceed classroom size limits. Six lawsuits filed against the state by the vast majority of school districts are yet another sign that school funding cuts of at least $500 per student went too far.
Instead of planning for our future by reinvesting in our schools as soon as possible, though, many legislators want to do nothing until the court hearings and rulings and inevitable appeals are exhausted — to wait until the court orders a solution, rather than coming up with solutions themselves. Unfortunately, each day that goes by increases the long-term consequences of overcrowded classrooms and demoralized school staff, and hurts the state’s ability to ensure a future workforce with the skills needed to compete in a global economy.
Health care for low-income Texans who need it most is a major area of the budget that was not only slashed, but also duct-taped together with a $5 billion Medicaid IOU. One impact of the cuts: Fewer than one out of three Texas physicians are now willing to take on new Medicaid patients, compared to two out of three in 2000, because of the most recent reductions made to what the state pays health care providers. The 2013 Legislature could not only restore and improve provider rates to improve doctor participation; legislators could also seize the opportunities presented by the Affordable Care Act to give low-income citizen adults access to affordable health coverage so they are better able to meet other needs like housing and food with their own earnings. Getting parents health coverage is one of the best things we can do to ensure the economic stability of Texas families. Health care coverage, especially for low-income Texans, helps them when they truly need it most and can be a huge relief when they are struggling through unexpected hard times. Another step the 2013 Legislature could take is the restoration and expansion of public higher education programs that educate and train doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals needed to address current and future shortages.
Other significant state funding was cut, such as to child abuse/neglect prevention programs, or public college and university financial aid, that should also rank high on budget writers’ restoration priorities if they have the best interest of Texas families at heart. Beyond restorations, in order to contribute to a vital economy, the budget also needs to cover the future growth in public and higher education enrollment that results from a young, fast-growing population, and the health care cost increases that affect not just Medicaid but state employee and retiree health benefits. Finally, legislators are once again being asked to tackle long-recognized but unaddressed needs, such as the state’s water plan and unfunded highway projects to alleviate traffic congestion.
Meeting the needs of a rapidly growing state by providing additional money for schools, health care, higher education opportunities, water and highways sounds like a reasonable way to write a budget, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, longtime observers of the Texas budget process know that more often than not, it’s not current or future needs that ultimately determine what lawmakers spend: It’s the amount of state revenue expected to be available. The job of forecasting the amount of money the state can spend falls to the state comptroller. On Monday, the comptroller revised the 2012-13 revenue estimate upwards by over $9 billion, because prior forecasts turned out to be too pessimistic. She also predicted growth during 2014-15 in both general revenue ($4 billion more) and the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund. Known more commonly as the rainy day fund, the stabilization account already contains $8 billion, and could hit $12 billion by 2015.
What this means is, legislators already have enough general and rainy day funds to undo the 2011 cuts, but that only solves some of the state’s fiscal challenges. State officials will also try to undo some of the financial gimmicks on which the current budget was built. These gimmicks — including postponed payments, speeded-up tax collections and unspent earmarked balances — now make up almost 10 percent of the current budget, and are all symptoms of the same problem: a state revenue system that rarely keeps up with population growth and inflation, and that is extremely vulnerable to economic downturns.
Some argue that Texas just needs to have the discipline to stick with its new, even more miserly state budget because it reduces the need to find state tax revenue in the future — the notion being, any dollar you don’t spend today is a dollar you won’t have to spend tomorrow. Recent history indicates otherwise: A state dollar you don’t spend today is probably a local tax dollar you’ll pay tomorrow. Besides, that dollar spent today contributes to a better standard of living for you, your neighbors and your community.
Texas families living in poverty have made some tough choices, such as deciding between buying an extra carton of milk for their children, or another gallon of gas for their work commute. But they’re working tirelessly every day to pull themselves and their families out of crisis and back to where they were before their unexpected financial hardship. They’re playing by the rules by working full time and trying to get off public assistance.
State officials have also had to make tough choices in the past — the Great Recession forced everyone, including our state Legislature, to cut back on spending. But, just like a struggling family would do once they started making more money, our leaders should use the tax revenue we have and start getting back to where we were before the drastic 2011 cuts. We know Texas families have the resiliency and motivation to not accept setbacks as the “new normal” and will work hard to overcome it, and we should expect the same from our leaders. Legislators shouldn’t accept bare-bones budgeting as the new normal.
Instead, legislators should use the money available now to invest in the education and health care systems that will help ensure our state’s future prosperity and extend it to those who are still struggling.

You can read it online here as well.
You can also read our executive director F. Scott McCown’s Sunday op-ed here.

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