Sunday, May 12, 2013

Texas budget makes education, healthcare and water top priorities

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of five final projects the Spring 2013 Data Visualization class for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

By Kelli Ainsworth, Ann Choi and Sarah Foster

LBB from Sarah Foster on Vimeo.

The proposed 2014-2015 Texas budget is nearing the final stages of approval, with only a few weeks left in the 83rd legislature. On April 22, the members of the conference committee that will be tasked with hammering out a compromise between the Senate and House versions of the budget bill were announced.  As in years past, 75 percent of both chambers’ budget is allocated to education and health and human services. Though the decision to earmark so much money to these two functional areas may seem a matter of routine at this point, this session’s budgetary decisions were particularly significant. After massive education cuts in 2011 lead to a school finance lawsuit, and with the question of state Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act, funding education and healthcare were both high priorities and sources of tremendous debate. Though water infrastructure gets far less money than the behemoths of education and health and human services, fallout from the drought has made water funding a serious legislative priority this session.

Both the House and Senate versions of the budget have proposed more money for education over the next two years, though the Senate version, which pumps an extra $1.5 billion into education offers schools slightly more. However, as the Center for Public Policy Priorities points out, schools lost more than $5 billion in the last legislative session. These cuts, estimates CPPP, resulted in the loss of 21,000 teachers and staff. Some districts were forced to eliminate sports and arts programs, while others had to curtail bus service. The CPPP and other education advocates worry that the increased funding for education won’t go far enough to reverse the losses suffered two years ago.

Texas Public Policy Foundation also agrees that efforts should be made toward restoring some of the money cut from education during the previous legislative session, but also feels education should learn to function more efficiently, so it will require less funding overall. TPPF and conservative lawmakers support increasing school-choice options, believing that a competitive educational marketplace will encourage schools to make the best use of the funds they receive in order to attract and keep students. However, private school vouchers won’t be an option in the near future, as the House voted down public funding for private education.

Education wasn’t alone in facing deep cuts in the 2011 legislative session. Family planning funding through the Department of State Health Services was cut by 2/3, leaving an estimated 170,000 women without access to family planning resources, says the CPPP. This session, budget would restore care to nearly all of those who lost access due to last session’s cuts through a combination of programs. In an April 25 open letter to the legislature, the CPPP wrote, “Making sure all Texans have access to the tools they need to plan the timing and size of their families is a critical piece of the puzzle in building equal economic opportunity for Texans who aspire to overcome poverty, join the middle class and prosper.” 

The debate on healthcare funding in Texas has also been shaped by the impending Medicaid expansion mandated under the Affordable Care Act. Legislators have been debating how exactly Texas should work to expand Medicaid. There are 6.1 million Texans without any form of insurance, the largest number in any state. While Democrats favor simply expanding Medicaid coverage and eligibility, Republicans have endorsed a federal block grant that would give the state more control in deciding who can get coverage, how much they can get and how it can be used. They feel the current regulations governing Medicaid perpetuate a broken system that doesn’t benefit anyone. In an April 1 press release, the TPPF wrote, “Bottom line is that the status quo doesn’t make sense for providers or patients.”

Though water doesn’t typically receive the level of funding or attention afforded to education and healthcare, it’s been a major talking point in budget discussions this legislative session. The Texas Comptroller’s office estimates that the state lost over $8 billion as a result of the drought and wildfires in 2011. In order to avoid a similar situation in the future, various proposals for improving water infrastructure have been raised. The House budget includes $170 million to address wildfire damage. House Bill 11, which never reached a vote due to procedural complications, would have allocated $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for water programs and services aimed at combating repercussions from future droughts. 

Once the final budget is agreed upon and signed off on by Governor Perry, agencies will be forced to make do with the money they’re allocated. Whether the increases in funding to education, healthcare and water will serve their intended purposes remains to be seen.


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