Behind The Issues Facing Texas

Texas Forward Statement on the 85th Legislature

Texas Forward, a coalition of organizations promoting a balanced approach to state budget decisions, worked hard this session to fight proposed budget and revenue cuts. The 85th Legislative Session was very mixed for the average Texan. We entered the session with a list of emergency items from the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, but the focus of these leaders was not aimed at the emergencies millions of Texans face daily. Some of the biggest crisis areas received attention, such as child protective services and mental health, while others like education and Medicaid were not funded at adequate levels. Below are some of the highlights of the 85th Legislature.

The Good:

Child Protective Services (CPS) saw one of the biggest increases of any part of the budget this session as legislators scrambled to stop the steady stream of tragedies which have rocked the state since 2015. A $380.8 million increase will allow the continuation of $12,000 raises for frontline workers and the hiring of over 1,400 new employees that began in 2017, including 600 new case workers by 2019. Combined with a $94.9 million increase to the reimbursement ratesfor foster care providers the legislature signaled their commitment to speeding up investigations and addressing the issue of children sleeping in CPS offices. Adult Independent Living transition programs ($1.2 million), Permanency Care Assistance ($6.4 million), and Relative Caregiver ($32.5 million) all received increases as well, and this should help as the state seeks to find more permanent placements that impact long-term outcomes for children in care.

Mental Health and its intersection with the justice system also saw a large number of needed reforms and funding increases as legislators took on an issue that gained greater prominence over the interim. The Sandra Bland Act, named for the woman who died in a Texas jail after being denied health care, mandates that people suffering a mental health crisis be diverted to the appropriate care providers rather than a jail. The Sandra Bland Act also requires that any deaths which occur in a jail be investigated by an independent law enforcement agency rather than the authority under which the death occurred. SB 292 by Sen. Huffman also addresses the intersection between mental health and incarcerations by creating a grant program for counties to try new methods for addressing recidivism among those with mental health disorders, as well as working to reduce the time needed to bring a person with a mental health crisis into a state mental health facility for treatment.

The Irresponsible:

The voucher amendment inserted into the House school finance bill by the Senate after the House clearly rejected voucher proposals earlier in the session created an impasse, leaving the basic operations of schools across Texas underfunded. Many rural districts may be forced to.

close schools as the state continues to cut back its share of funding (down to 37% of state-local formulas), and some counties are likely to be left without a single operating school as they struggle to make up the difference through property taxes. The agreement within the Capitol this session that school finance was broken dissolved in the last weeks as personality conflicts and differing ideologies doomed what was intended as a first step in a long process to overhaul the system. Similarly, the state continues to shortchange retired teachers whose health care costs are rising rapidly while their pensions remain static. While the Legislature took tentative steps towards slowing the growth of health care costs, many fixed-income Texans will continue to fall behind as coverage becomes more expensive.

Medicaid was once again left woefully underfunded, and many health care providers will continue to be reimbursed at rates well below what is equitable. During the debate on the supplemental budget to plug the hole in the last budget’s Medicaid appropriation, advocates continued to press for a bigger restoration of children’s therapy services, yet the Legislature largely failed to address this issue.  Services for people with disabilities were ignored as legislators failed to increase the community attendant wage floor above $8 per hour and extended the wait list for Medicaid community waivers to an unprecedented 14 years. The Medicaid appropriation for 2018-2019 is at least $1 billion below what will ultimately be required to continue health care services for over 4 million Texans.

The Unfinished

After the Governor’s call for a Special Session in July there are several issues that had been killed by the Legislature which were included in the agenda. Property taxes were a focal point of the session after Lt. Gov. Patrick declared SB 2 a top priority. Experts testified that the bill did nothing to address the main drivers of property tax growth -- namely, the state shirking its duties towards schools. Cities, counties, and public safety officials across the state lined up to vociferously oppose further limiting the rate of property tax collection growth as a danger to local control, planning, and public safety. SB 2 was halted in the House after the Senate-passed version was reshaped into a tax transparency bill that would have made it easier for citizens to understand and protest assessments. The Governor is also resurrecting misleading talking points on public sector unions; making wild leaps in logic to attack political rivals in a Special Session that could read as a partisan platform for the Governor’s re-election rather than any sort of valid political document.

With the call for a Special Session of such length it is shocking how little focus is paid on addressing the issues facing Texans. It is further problematic that many of the issues chosen directly attack the cities and the decisions citizens make to build the communities they want to live in. Texas has real issues, a session such as the one Rick Perry called on school finance would be welcome and with more structural deficits built in to Medicaid this year there is still work to do; unfortunately the Legislature will not be addressing the real issues this special.

Eva DeLuna