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January 18th, 2011:

LBB recommendations

We’re still waiting on the Pitts “You’re gonna get it good and hard” budget, but until then the Legislative Budget Board has released a list of recommendations for savings, which you can see here, that’s worth reviewing. There’s some good stuff here, so let me go over a few highlights.

Things I like:

—  Require electronic banking for state business. Replace paper checks with direct deposit for all state employees and others who receive regular payments from the state.

—  Strengthen regulation to improve food safety. Coordinate food safety regulation between the four main agencies involved to cut down on the six million cases of food poisoning reported each year in Texas.

—  Tie the August sales tax holiday to budget conditions. This would save $111.8 million by canceling the sales tax holiday in August 2011 and 2012 and by then conditioning it on the health of the state budget. If the state has a surplus in 2013, there would be a holiday, and if available revenue for the 2014-15 budget — the one that’ll be written in two years — is greater than available revenue now, then they can have the holiday then, too.

—  Repeal restrictions on Sunday liquor sales. Getting rid of the state’s ban would increase revenue from state alcohol and sales taxes by $7.4 million. Texas is one of 14 states that don’t allow hard liquor sales on Sundays.

—   Lose the exemption on hotel taxes for permanent residents. Hotels don’t charge occupancy taxes on people who stay for 30 days or more. If they did, the state would bring in another $16.1 million in taxes every two years.

—   Reform how health care is delivered and paid for to reduce costs. The LBB suggests legislation that encourages Texas health care providers to try out new payment and delivery models, and to consider using bundled payments in the Texas Medicaid program. The LBB recommendations also seem to suggest lifting — at least in part — the ban on the corporate practice of medicine, or hospitals hiring doctors.

—   Expand Medicaid managed care into South Texas. The LBB suggests lifting the ban on Medicaid managed care in the Rio Grande Valley, which has been offered by the Health and Human Services Commission as a potential cost-saver.

—   Reduce Medicaid patients’ reliance on emergency rooms. The LBB says redirecting patients with non-emergency conditions from the ER to a clinic could save $184.2 million a year. They suggest physician incentive programs, making urgent care centers Medicaid clinics, and encouraging Medicaid managed care to put tougher restrictions in place.

—   Continue and expand the Medicaid Women’s Health Program. Expanding a program that uses preventative screenings to avoid pregnancy-related Medicaid costs would save $3.8 million in the next biennium, the LBB says.

—   Allow advanced practice nurses to prescribe certain drugs. The LBB says advanced practice nurses are poised to ease Texas’ physician shortage, if the state allows them to diagnose and prescribe in some capacity. The cost to patients would be less too, LBB argues.

—   Establish a supervised re-entry program to reduce costs and improve efficiency. The LBB is recommending that lawmakers consider closing one or more prison units. That’s a big deal, because tough-on-crime Texas has never closed a prison. The board says the state could save up to $33 million in the next biennium if the Texas Department of Criminal Justice does a better job of helping released prisoners stay out of the big house, reducing prison population.

—   Eliminate statutory barriers to contain costs in correctional managed healthcare. The LBB says the state could save about $1.2 million in the next biennium by improving health care processes in prisons, like prescription drug distribution and dialysis treatments, and by allowing more really sick and really old prisoners out under the Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision Program. The LBB says in fiscal year 2009, 74 offenders died while awaiting review for medical parole.

— Implement a fuel inefficiency surcharge. In 2010, Texans bought nearly 566,000 cars with less-than-efficient fuel ratings. The LBB says adding a $100 surcharge to the purchase of new vehicles with poor fuel efficiency could raise $115.3 million over the next biennium.

That last one may be my favorite of them all. My only objection is that the surcharge should be higher – I’d plump for $1000, which in the context of buying a bigass truck or SUV isn’t that big a piece of the sticker price. And I say this as someone whose last automotive purchase would undoubtedly have been subject to this. (But not my next one!) Beyond that, lots of other worthy suggestions, all of which I hope receive support in the Lege.

Things I don’t like, or at least am dubious about:

—  Consolidate the state’s poison control centers. There are six now; merging them into one would save $2.6 million annually.

—  Raise prices for storing documents for local governments. The state’s archives aren’t covering their costs with current pricing, and doing so would cut $1.6 million from state spending.

—  Charge state employees for parking in state garages. The state could bring in $5.5 million every two years, the LBB estimates, if it charged state employees as it now charges visitors who don’t work for the state.

—  Cut state contribution to state employee insurance plans. This would save the state $298.1 million in the next biennium by shifting health insurance costs to employees or by keeping those contributions level and lowering benefits under those plans.

—   Charge state retirees extra to keep current health benefit levels. The state could save $95.5 million if it charged retirees to pay part of their insurance premiums based on their years of service, and if it lowered the state’s subsidies for those retirees’ dependents to 40 percent of their premiums (it’s 50 percent now).

—  Increase the state traffic fine to improve traffic safety. Texas could gain about $53 million in general revenue and another $31.7 million in dedicated general revenue over the biennium by increasing the state traffic fine. Already, Texans found guilty of a traffic violation pay a $30 traffic fine to the state in addition to whatever the cost of the citation is. The LBB recommends ramping that fine up to $45.

—  Improve traffic safety by banning the use of wireless communication devices while driving. This ought to make state Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, happy, since he’s tried session after session to ban cell phone use while driving. The LBB says Texas could save lives and generate about $2.3 million by making it illegal to use your mobile device while driving, and also making it an offense under the much-maligned Driver Responsibility Program.

The poison control merger may be all right, but given recent history, I’m highly distrustful of such things. I would oppose anything that increases costs on local governments without strong assurance that other budget actions will not simply transfer state expenses to localities and call them “savings”. I think more work needs to be done on revamping the Driver Responsibility Program before any fines should be increased; while I don’t oppose a texting-while-driving ban, adding anything to the DRP is something to be very skeptical of. I realize that the insurance items are big tickets, but imposing them on top of furloughs is putting a lot of the burden on state employees; charging them for parking is just insult to injury.

Things I think are hilarious:

—  Steer veterans to benefits that aren’t state-funded. Use national public assistance databases to make sure veterans in Texas aren’t using Medicaid — which costs the state money — for benefits that are available from veterans programs that don’t use state money.

—  Maximize the federal funds Texas receives for transportation. Texas could get more than $223 million from federal transportation dollars if lawmakers changed some laws to improve the transportation planning process and the coordination among transportation-related agencies, according to the LBB.

We hate the fascistic, freedom-killing federal government and its evil, filthy money, except when they help pull our budgetary fat out of the fire. Then we can’t get enough.

Those are my off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. What do you think?

This is your government on dogma

We won’t get Jim Pitts’ bare bones budget outline till late tonight, so as not to be a buzzkill on the Perry coronation inauguration. We did, however, get an opening bid from the ideological purists, and while it’s not worth looking at in details, because life is too short and a mind is a terrible thing to waste, there are a couple of things worth mentioning.

Education will have to bear the brunt of budget cuts, conservative legislators said Tuesday, because the federal government has left them no other options.

“Indeed, Texans can thank President Obama and the Congress led by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the passage of (federal health care reform), which is directly responsible for the massive reductions that are required in other areas of the budget, and particularly public and higher education,” according to the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, which released its plan for reducing state spending in the face of a significant budget shortfall.

Federal health care reform prevents states from reducing eligibility and benefits for people who use Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“We are forced to tinker at the edges of those programs and focus disproportionately on public and higher education,” said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who led the budget task force with state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa.

The state’s budget shortfall ranges from $15 billion to $27 billion depending upon who is doing the counting. The conservative legislators lay the cause of that shortfall mainly at the feet of the Obama administration and the economy, dismissing the legislators’ own role in digging the hole.

You know, like giant unaffordable property tax cuts. I took the liberty of running these guys’ excuses through a reality filter, and this is what it gave me:

I ran out of gas. I, I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD.

Much better. Moving on:

The group found $18 billion in potential savings without touching transportation, public safety or criminal justice. Among their suggestions are the following:

— Lift the elementary classroom size from 22 students to 25: $558 million

— Eliminate the pre-kindergarten grant program: $209 million

— Institute a 10 percent pay cut for state employees and two-day furlough per month : $1.7 billion

— Reduce the state’s contribution to health care for dependents of employees: $108 million

Let there be no doubt that there are two types of people in this state: Those who will be required to sacrifice extensively for the benefit of others, and those for whom any sacrifice is too great. State employees, who as a commenter notes are effectively getting a 20% pay cut under this plan, are an example of the former; Dan Patrick and his untouchable property tax cuts are an example of the latter. There is no class war in Texas – it’s long been over, and Dan Patrick’s team won.

As for the education-related cuts, you will note that there is no discussion of any possible effects on student performance, or possible long-term costs to the state as a result of any potential drop in student performance. It’s a lot easier to make proposals like these if you pretend there are no consequences. The only question I have is why stop at simply raising the class size limit? Why not go whole hog and impose class size minimums? Just imagine how many schools we could close, how many teachers and other school employees we could fire, and how much money we could save if we mandated that every class must contain at least 30 students? Or 40, or 50, or hell, 100? The answer, obviously, is that even guys like Tommy Williams and Warren Chisum recognize that there might be some bad things resulting from such a decree, and that the accompanying savings would not be considered worth it by everyone else. Their hope is that the ill effects of their proposal will be small enough to be “acceptable”, or – better yet – won’t be apparent for a few years, long enough for the facts to be fudged in the retelling. Hey, it beats having to make justifications now.

UPDATE: House Democrats will give their response to the Pitts budget tomorrow morning at 9 AM.

UPDATE: The Trib has an early peek.

The state of denial

Well, what did you expect?

How bad is the budget crisis in Texas? Ask the Republicans who run the state, and they’ll tell you it’s in the eye of the beholder.

The way they see it, the $8 billion drop in state revenue can be offset with some belt-tightening. The $7 billion loss in federal stimulus funding? Well, that was expected. And as for the roughly $12 billion more that state agencies say they need to avoid cutting services — Republicans say they just won’t get it.

Voila, the $27 billion shortfall is gone.

“There’s no shortage of commentators saying that we’re on the verge of budgetary Armageddon,” Republican Gov. Rick Perry recently told reporters. “The fact of the matter is that’s just not true.”

Texas is not alone in facing tough choices. Illinois raised its state income tax by 66 percent, and in California and Georgia, governors and legislators have considered raising them by as much as 75 percent. Texas lawmakers have promised not to raise taxes and are cutting deep into state services, including education and health care.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the state Senate and decides which legislation gets voted on, spent a lunch with the Capitol press corps trying to convince them they’ve got the story wrong.

“There is not a $27 billion deficit, and I don’t think there is even a $15 billion deficit,” Dewhurst said.

Rick Perry just spent the last year and a half assuring us that Texas was in super-duper shape. He’s not going to suddenly turn around and start saying “well, actually, we’ve got this ginormous budget deficit that I’m largely responsible for and that I’ve refused to talk about”. His goal here is simply to get the newsies to stop using the “d” word and to make it seem like this is just another session and just another budget, with nothing unusual – like, say, massive cuts to public education – about to happen. What else is he going to say?

By the way, if you accept Perry’s logic that we have X amount to spend, so we spend X regardless of what we spent before or what some people say we need, then if in two years’ time we have, say, 25% more than X to spend, we ought to spend exactly that much, too. I’ll bet you $27 billion that regardless of what happens this session, that will not be the approach Perry takes in 2013.

Too many tickets

From Texas Appleseed, via Grits.

Class C Ticketing, Arrest of Youth at School is Introducing Thousands to Justice System, Says New Appleseed Report

Schools Should Follow Lead of Juvenile Justice Agencies: Restrict Pepper Spray, Taser Use

Austin, TX. – A growing police presence in Texas public schools is coinciding with increased Class C misdemeanor ticketing and arrest of students for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – sending more youth to court and increasing their chances of academic failure and future justice system involvement, according to the third in a series of reports on Texas’ “school-to-prison pipeline” released today by the public interest law center Texas Appleseed. [Link: Report , see Executive Summary for findings/recommendations.]

“We are strongly recommending that Chapter 37 of the Education Code be amended to eliminate Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as penal code offenses for which students can be ticketed, and to clarify that arrest of students be a last resort reserved for behavioral incidents involving weapons and threatening safety. This would go a long way toward helping check the move of student discipline from schools to the courthouse,” said Texas Appleseed Deputy Director Deborah Fowler. The increase in ticketing comes at a time when overall juvenile crime rates are low, she said.

Also of major concern is the broad discretion given to school police officers to use pepper spray, Tasers and other types of force – and the lack of transparency around some schools’ “use of force” policies, Fowler said. “These types of force have been shown to cause physical and psychological harm to adults, and the impact on children can be even more devastating,” she said. While many school districts make their use of force policies publicly available, others have sought and used an Attorney General’s decision to keep such policies from parents and the public. Texas Appleseed filed suit last year against San Antonio ISD and Spring Branch ISD to compel full disclosure.

“School-based policing is one of the fastest growing areas of law enforcement,” Fowler said, “yet school police officers receive little training specific to child development or working in school environments, and there is little to no review of ticketing and arrest practices at the school level to determine their impact and effectiveness in improving student behavior and no required reporting of this data to the Texas Education Agency.” A body of research across the country indicates that Positive Behavioral Support programs in schools are much more effective in improving behavior, school climate and campus safety, she said. Last month, New York City became the latest to require its school police department to provide data on student arrest and ticketing in response to growing concern about using this approach to address low-level student misbehavior.

Based on 2009 data from the Texas Office of Court Administration, it appears that at least 275,000 Class C tickets were issued that year for offenses most commonly associated with school-based misbehavior, but poor record keeping and reporting makes it impossible to point to a definitive number,” Fowler said. In response to Texas Appleseed’s open records request to the 167 Texas school districts with stand-alone police departments, only 22 districts and four court jurisdictions provided 2006-07 ticketing data – representing almost a quarter of Texas’ students. These districts issued close to 32,000 tickets that year, with the greatest number reported in Houston ISD, 4,828; Dallas ISD, 4,402; San Antonio ISD, 3,760; Brownsville ISD, 2,856; and Austin ISD, 2,653. Districts with the highest ticketing rate (per student population) that year were Galveston ISD, 11%; San Antonio, Somerville and Waco ISDs, 7%; and Brownsville and East Central ISD, 6%.

Juvenile justice officials told Texas Appleseed that a large percentage of their referrals result from school-based arrests, Fowler said. In the 17 districts providing 2006-07 arrest data to Texas Appleseed (accounting for 13 percent of the state’s total enrollment that year), 7,100 students were arrested. The state’s two largest districts with stand-alone police departments, Dallas and Houston ISDs, could not provide any requested student arrest data.

The data that Texas Appleseed collected reflects these important trends:

  • Most Class C misdemeanor tickets written by school police officers are for low-level, non-violent misbehavior that do not involve weapons, yet ticketing can have far-reaching financial and legal impacts. Fines and costs associated with Class C tickets, reported to Texas Appleseed by municipal courts, range from less than $60 to more than $500 per ticket. Failure to pay the fine, complete court-ordered community service or comply with a notice to appear in court can result in the youth’s arrest at age 17. African American and Hispanic youth are disproportionately affected by this practice, and the ACLU of Texas recently filed suit against Hidalgo County after discovering hundreds of teens had been jailed for unpaid truancy tickets issued years earlier. While a new state law (SB 1056, 2009) mandates criminal courts (including municipal and justice courts handling Class C tickets) immediately issue a nondisclosure order upon the conviction of a child for a misdemeanor offense punishable by fine only, the large volume of these cases has created a huge backlog, resulting in Class C misdemeanors remaining on a youth’s “criminal record” accessible by future employers and others.
  • Ticketing has increased substantially over a two- to five-year period, and where the child attends school – and not the nature of the offense – is the greater predictor of whether a child will be ticketed at school. Twenty-two of the 26 school districts or jurisdictions supplying ticketing data reported an increase in the number of tickets issued at school.
  • African American and (to a lesser extent) Hispanic students are disproportionately represented in Class C misdemeanor ticketing in Texas schools. Of the 15 districts that could disaggregate ticketing data by race and ethnicity, 11 disproportionately ticketed African American students compared to their percentage of the total student population in 2006-07. In the most recent year for which ticketing data is available, these districts reported ticketing African American students at a rate double their representation in the student body: Austin ISD, Dallas ISD, Humble ISD, Katy ISD, and San Antonio ISD.
  • It is not unusual for elementary school-age children, including students 10 years old and younger, to receive Class C tickets at school—and data indicates students as young as six have been ticketed. More than 1,000 tickets were issued to elementary school children for a six-year period in those districts for which we have data.

The full report is quite long, but the executive summary is enough to give you a good picture of it; this Texas Trib story is also a good summary. I was curious as to how much HISD spent on its police force, so I sent an email to Trustee Anna Eastman to inquire. She responded that the budget allocates $13.5 million to HISD police, of which 95% is personnel. Speaking for myself, I’d prefer that HISD look at cutbacks in this area when forced to do so by the legislative budget before it looks at things that would affect classroom instruction. If nothing else, I’d like to see more scrutiny of their practices, and I hope this report offers a starting point for the discussion.

Unfinished business

One thing that stood out to me from the Chron’s Q&A with Noel Freeman, the newly-elected president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus:

Q. What has changed about Houston’s GLBT community in past three decades?

A. We have branched out. People recognize Montrose as kind of the historical center of the gay community in Houston, (but) we’re much more comfortable in a lot of different neighborhoods. I live in the Heights, and on my street there are three same-sex households. I think the GLBT community is much more comfortable and more prosperous than it used to be, but that’s not to say that we don’t have a long way to go.

Q. What do you mean?

A. We still have on the books, in the city charter, a provision passed by popular vote prohibiting the extension of same-sex partner benefits to city employees. That’s just flagrant discrimination written into our charter. I think there will be a point when we can revisit that. We have a nondiscrimination policy for city employees that prohibits discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity. We would like to see that extended to people who have city contracts. There are housing issues. So there are things we need to deal with.

During the 2009 campaign, Mayor Parker avoided talking about that city charter referendum. She did so, she said at the time, because she didn’t want to be thought of as “the gay candidate” but rather as a candidate – and ultimately Mayor – for all of Houston. Fair enough, and there are certainly plenty of other things that require her attention now. But there’s nothing to stop the rest of us from taking action to right this wrong. I’d love to see a referendum that would repeal that earlier discriminatory amendment on the ballot in 2012, and I’ll support any effort to get it there and get it passed. Ten years is long enough.

TCEQ a no-show at EPA hearing

They’d rather sue than engage.

At the hearing in a hotel ballroom, Al Armendariz, the EPA’s regional administrator for Texas and five adjacent states, said the federal agency prefers to let the state issue the permits, as it does for other air pollutants.

“This isn’t a program that we want to implement for years,” Armendariz said. “We want the state of Texas to take ownership of it, and we are ready to work with the TCEQ. However, at this time, those discussions have not begun.”

In a statement, the TCEQ said it didn’t attend the hearing because the state agency’s position “has been clearly articulated to the EPA and well documented in several pending court cases.”

“Our attempts to reason with EPA and efforts to have constructive discussions on our position and their authority under federal law have been ignored,” the statement said. “We look forward to pursuing our position in the court system and we are confident that science and the law will prevail.”

All they care about is finding a judge to let them off the hook. Remind me again why we even have the TCEQ?