Friday, January 21, 2011

The Texas budget cluster

The news coming out of Austin is so bad it is truly unfathomable.

A Sugar Land prison unit would be closed, funding for Brazosport Community College would be eliminated and thousands of jobs would be cut under a base budget presented late Tuesday night to state lawmakers dealing with a massive shortfall and the prospect of no new revenue this session.

The budget proposes nearly $5 billion less for public education below the current base funding. It is also $9.8 billion less than what is needed to cover current funding formulas, which includes about 170,000 additional students entering the public school system during the next two-year budget cycle. Pre-kindergarten would be scaled back.

Higher education funding, including student financial aid, would be slashed.

The proposal wouldn't provide funding for all the people projected to be eligible for the Medicaid program and would slash Medicaid reimbursement rates for health care providers.

Community supervision programs would be cut and a Sugar Land prison unit would be closed. Funding would be eliminated for four community colleges including Brazosport near Lake Jackson.

Thousands of state jobs would be cut.

The state wants to sell the land where the Fort Bend minimum security facility is located to developers. Let's pick it up from the TexTrib:

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 ...

No new taxes, no existing tax increases, no using the Rainy Day fund, but every state fee that you can think of -- and many you haven't -- is going up. No more sales tax holidays. Traffic violation fees to the state increase 50%. Vehicle license fees, vehicle registration fees, vehicle inspection fees, driver license renewal fees, hunting and fishing license fees, state park admission fees ... on and on.

Even the Republicans are whining about the budget cuts.

No-new-taxes and limited government may be a GOP refrain, but not necessarily when implemented in Republican lawmakers' backyards.

Three of four GOP lawmakers whose community colleges would lose state funding under a starting-point, bare-bones budget proposal publicly decried the proposed losses Wednesday.

Their worries joined broader concerns by Democrats over the proposal that would meet a budget shortfall estimated to be at least $15 billion without new revenue, instead relying on cuts in areas including public and higher education and health and human services.

"Reality has set in today, members. We have seen what the budget is going to look like, and we've got to go from now campaigning to governing this state of Texas," said Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, whose district includes Ranger College, one of those slated to lose state funding. "To me, we've gotten off on a wrong foot."

He called the college-closing proposal "the height of irresponsibility."

Considering that Republicans have been in control of the Texas Senate since 1996, and the House since 2003, and Keffer himself has been in Austin since '96 ... who do you think he's talking about?

The community college flap is a telling slice of the debate to come as school districts, teachers, groups that advocate for vulnerable Texans, lawmakers and others gauge the effect of the budget shortfall. ...

The proposal provides no new funding for growth in any area, including public and higher education or Medicaid, Pitts noted. One school finance expert, Lynn Moak, said the public education cutbacks could cost 100,000 school district jobs over two years.

The only thing that was spared the knife was border security.

"We're already as a state 50th in per capita spending, so you've got to ask yourself when you see a base budget like this, at what point is this budget akin to asking an anorexic person to lose more weight?" he asked.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said, "The leadership has said that we want less government and we want to balance this budget through reduction. … Texans, whether you're old - seniors - whether you're young, in between, you're going to feel the pain. This the paradigm they've created. And now the question is whether or not Texans find that acceptable."

Rural Texas will be hammered the hardest by this budget, as the state and county governments are typically one of the largest -- if not the largest -- employer. Rural Texas went overwhelmingly for the Republicans in 2010.

Thus, Texans who voted for the GOP are getting exactly what they voted for. Texans who did not vote in the last election are also getting it. Hard.

The next two years of this debacle may teach some of them their folly. Then again, with the quality of Texas public education already poor and getting worse, they still may not learn the lesson.

Kuffner has a easy-to-digest list of the budget cuts, some of which are actually good ideas. The NYT's "What's the Matter With Texas?" has four point/counterpoint op-eds from Texas experts (if you count Talmadge Heflin as one of those, that is). And the Legislative Study Group has a five-page summary (.pdf) detailing how the budget cuts will affect Texans, which is the easiest and best resource currently available. Print it out, make a few extra copies, and take it to your next club meeting.

And keep in mind: this is what a very large majority of Texans voted for. They have, in fact, been voting for it for several years now.

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