Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

March 3rd, 2011:

Comptroller states the obvious about the deficit

Obvious if you’ve been paying attention, anyway.

The Texas comptroller told the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday that she can’t imagine solving the current budget crisis through cuts alone.

Susan Combs spoke at a hearing designed to be a reality check for conservatives who think the budget can be balanced by slashing state services. The current two-year budget cycle is $4.3 billion short and, under the Texas Constitution, that deficit must be made up by Aug. 31.

The state is also facing another projected $27 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget, but that was not the subject of Thursday’s hearing.

Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, asked Combs to testify after he introduced a bill to spend $4.3 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to cover the deficit. In opening Thursday’s hearing, he tried to communicate the gravity of the problem, which left lawmakers silent and stone-faced.

“The budget adopted by the Legislature last session, and signed by the governor, exceeded the comptroller’s measure of available revenue,” Pitts said. “This committee, and this Legislature, has very limited options: the use of the Rainy Day Fund, further reductions … or deferring payments into the next biennium.”

While Combs never called on the committee to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, she presented a detailed history of how it had been used in the past and how spending it would not hurt the state’s credit rating. She also examined the other options.

“I don’t know how you can get to $4.3 billion in cuts,” Combs said. She warned that even if the recession ends, that doesn’t mean revenues will return to levels seen in 2005, when the Texas economy was booming.

Pitts filed his bill to use Rainy Day Funds for the current biennium’s deficit earlier this week. He hasn’t gone as far as some of his colleagues in suggesting we may need to use it for more than just that, but he’s certainly made no bones about this. Not having to dedicate any current revenue to last biennium will help – not enough, of course, but it will help. I just hope his Republican colleagues are listening.

Legislation to allow slot machines filed

Fresh from the inbox:


AUSTIN, Texas — Texas State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and Texas State Representative Beverly Woolley (R-Houston) filed legislation today to allow Texas voters to decide whether to allow slot machines at existing horse and greyhound tracks along with federally recognized Indian reservations.

Both Legislators filed Joint Resolutions (HJR 111, SJR 33) that would trigger statewide constitutional amendment elections as well as the corresponding enabling legislation (HB 2111, SB 1118) detailing the proposal.

“For years Texas has missed out on billions of dollars in gaming and entertainment revenues while neighboring states pocket the winnings,” said Senator Hinojosa. “This proposal is the first major revenue generating proposal of this session – it will help keep the money we lose to other states in Texas, and put new revenues on the table without increasing taxes.”

Economic studies indicate that the legislation as proposed would bring in about $1 billion a year in tax revenue and create more than 77,000 Texas jobs across a wide variety of sectors. Currently, Texas loses revenue to Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico at a rate of $2.5 billion a year.

“The people of Texas should have the opportunity to decide whether or not to add slot machines to Texas’ racetracks and federally recognized Indian reservations,” said Representative Woolley. “This legislation gives Texans a voice to decide our economic future.”

In a recent poll conducted by Baselice and Associates, Inc., 82 percent of Texas voters favored the right to vote on adding slot machines to racetracks and federally recognized Indian reservations. Sixty four percent favored the specific proposal. Support was evenly spread across all partisan and demographic subgroups.

For more information, please visit

Here’s HJR 111, SJR 33, HB 2111, and SB 1118. You can read more about that Baselice poll here; a similar poll from 2009 found a nearly identical result. Finally, here’s a DMN story about the newly-filed bills.

You know what my opinion is of how likely any such measure makes it out of the Lege, so I’ll spare you another accounting of it. I will say this, though. Lately, we’ve started to see Republican legislators not only embrace the idea of using at least some of the Rainy Day Fund to ease the budget cuts a bit, we’ve also seen one Republican make the case for some form of tax increases, too. Sen. Deuell is still out on a pretty lonely limb right now, but the mere fact that he’s there is remarkable. I certainly wasn’t expecting it. As such, I must consider the possibility that I’m overestimating Republican resistance to gambling legislation. I still want to see some news story showing new House members being on board with this, or former opponents of gambling stating their willingness to vote for a particular measure this time around before I really change my mind. But for the first time, I’m beginning to think that it’s within the realm of the possible that something might pass. Postcards has more.

UPDATE: And now there’s a casino bill, too.

Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, filed a casino gambling bill in the Texas House. He filed it hours after Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, filed another bill that would allow slot machines at racetracks.

Companion bills were also filed in the Senate. Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, filed the slots bill. And casino proponents said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, filed a casino bill.

House Joint Resolution 112, which is supported by the Texas Gaming Association, would call for an election on a constitutional amendment that would allow the creation of a five-person Texas Gaming Commission. A fiscal note has not been published.

Once created, the Texas Gaming Commission would issue up to eight licenses to operate slot machines at racetracks.

It also would issue up to six licenses for casino gaming in different urban areas in Texas.

Additionally, the bill also would allow the commission up to two licenses for casino gaming on islands in the Gulf of Mexico.

The commission would also allow an Indian tribe to operate slot machines or have casino gambling.

Here’s HJR 112, and here’s a statement from Sen. Ellis about his bill, SJR 34.

Council redistricting will be messier than it needs to be

Houston City Council is set to start their discussion about redistricting, but some people want them to stop.

Councilman Mike Sullivan views expansion as a function of mayor-council politics, and he opposes it.

Houston’s residents, Sullivan said in an impromptu news conference after last week’s council meeting, “don’t want to see us trying to disenfranchise council members. The mayor has a leg up on us, if you will, in the strong mayor form of government. A super-majority with new council members would be 12, and that throws entirely too much power to the mayor’s seat.”

Mayor Annise Parker followed with a news conference of her own. “It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be contentious. We don’t have a choice (but to expand),” she said.

To Sullivan’s thinking, expansion dilutes the power of existing council members who shed turf, constituents and the weight of their individual votes as the council adds members.

Any increase in the super-majority, which is needed for such parliamentary maneuvers as extending speakers’ time, Sullivan explained, gives the mayor a tighter grip on the reins of a meeting.

I do not understand this position. Campos is right – we had a deal. The city agreed to expand Council to 11 districts when the population hit 2.1 million, and it was moving towards that when the official Census number came in an inch shy of that figure. The city was acting in good faith based on pre-Census estimates which had Houston’s population over the line as far back as 2006. I don’t see what the justification is for stopping now.

I suppose I have a pinch of sympathy for the “letter of the law” argument that if the Census says we’re short, the agreement is not in force. The problem with that is when do you then agree that the 2.1 million milestone has been officially reached? If you want to go by the next Census estimate, I’ll remind you that we already had Census estimates that indicated we should get a move on. If you say we should wait till the 2020 Census, I’ll cordially invite you to file a lawsuit and convince a judge of that position. If you have something else in mind, I’d like to hear it, as neither CM Sullivan nor any other advocate for applying the brakes articulated an endgame position in the story.

Finally, the argument that adding Council members somehow dilutes Council’s power is irrelevant. As Greg notes, there is nothing to stop anyone from pursuing a charter amendment that would alter our current strong Mayor system in whatever fashion suits you. Personally, I think Council members should have the ability to put items on the agenda if they can get a majority of members to sign on to it. Regardless, one has nothing to do with the other.

County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill said he suspects partisan motives in the expansion.

“Our concern is that the mayor is looking to add two new seats when the numbers don’t justify it in an effort to give Democrats or Democrat-leaning council members more control and more power,” Woodfill said.

One could argue that Republicans are currently over-represented on Council, so if redistricting leads to more Democrats that would simply balance things out. But so what? Nobody has an R or a D next to his or her name when they run for Council. Woodfill is just whining, and he too is ignoring the settlement agreement. And there’s more where that came from.

At least half a dozen Council members are saying that without the Census to prove the threshold has been crossed, it’s not time to expand.

“We don’t have the money to add two new seats,” Council Member Wanda Adams said.

“I’m not going to change the rules to accommodate anyone’s agenda,” Council Member Brenda Stardig said.

Council Member Jarvis Johnson questioned whether city should even try to prove a 2.1 million population. “Let’s fight to go down,” not up in number, he said.

To CM Adams, I say will it be any less expensive to defend against the lawsuit that will surely be filed to force the city to live up to the settlement agreement in the event that Council tries to weasel out of this? The city was sued before, and I guarantee it will be sued again. This time, I would expect it to lose. Which do you expect will cost more?

To CM Stardig, I say what agenda? The city’s position, which it still has every reason to believe, is that its population is at least 2.1 million, which subjects it to the 1979 settlement agreement. What agenda do you think is in play here?

To CM Johnson, I say what the hell are you talking about? Seriously, I have no idea what you mean.

Here’s the full Chron writeup. The last paragraphs sum it up:

Meanwhile, though the charter calls for using “the best available data, including, but not limited to, the most recent federal census,” council members have seized on the census number to make their case that the population has not crossed the threshold for council expansion.

Should council find next week that the city’s population has not reached 2.1 million, it will put the city’s governing body on record that it has accepted the 2010 census count while city staffers ask the Census Bureau to correct it. City Attorney David Feldman said he believes the Census Bureau would decide whether to change the count based on technical data and will not consider council votes.

I’m trying, but I just don’t see the justification for backing out now. The item was tagged till next week, so we’ll see how it goes. More from Greg is here.

Rural hospitals fear Medicaid cuts

As well they should.

Childress is about 110 miles southeast of Amarillo and 225 miles northwest of Fort Worth on U.S. 287.

The obstetrics division at the Childress hospital wouldn’t be the only one affected if the Medicaid cuts are approved. Nor would it be the worst.

Entire rural hospitals could go out of business. And that could make it difficult for tens of thousands of Texans to get obstetric care, emergency room access and general medical help.

Don McBeath, an official with the Texas Organization for Rural and Community Hospitals, said that the implications of the cuts could be dire and that several rural hospitals across the state could be in danger of shutting down.

“People are going to die because they are not going to get care,” he said.


House and Senate leaders have proposed a 10 percent cut in the rates paid to Medicaid providers, such as doctors and hospitals. But because of the loss of federal matching funds, increasing numbers of Medicaid patients and other factors, the cuts might be actually greater than 10 percent.

The high number of Medicaid patients also could make rural hospitals feel a sharp pain if any cuts are made — particularly because Medicaid pays back doctors and hospitals at less than cost.

“Anything that reduces payments to rural hospitals — because of their narrow margins — could jeopardize their ability to stay open,” McBeath said.

Some rural hospitals have benefited in the past from millions of additional dollars from the state’s Health and Human Services Commission to cover some of the costs. The rural hospital organization has made it a priority to get that money allocated again this legislative session.

But the bump helps only a little bit. Doctors wouldn’t see any of it. And neither would nursing homes or community care programs.

I feel very bad about all of this. What these folks are potentially facing is catastrophic, and yes, life-threatening. But as with the rural school districts, one cannot escape the conclusion that this is what they have voted for themselves. Here are election results from Childress County, which is the central feature of this story:

Governor Rick Perry REP 774 70.17% Bill White DEM 293 26.56% Kathie Glass LIB 28 2.53% Deb Shafto GRN 8 0.72% Andy Barron W-I 0 0.00% ----------- Race Total 1,103 ---------------------------------------- Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst REP 891 81.36% Linda Chavez-Thompson DEM 165 15.06% Scott Jameson LIB 30 2.73% Herb Gonzales, Jr. GRN 9 0.82% ----------- Race Total 1,095

In addition, Childress County is represented in the Legislature by Warren Chisum, who believes that only virtuous people deserve health care, and whose district overall went 77% for Perry. I don’t know how many of those people are worthy of health care in Chisum’s eye, but it doesn’t really matter because if he has his way they won’t get it anyway. I don’t know what these folks will do if the budget goes through as is and decimates their access to medical care, but I do know who they need to hold responsible for it when it happens.

Activists for the disabled protest in front of Perry’s office

Go for it!

About 35 Texans in wheelchairs, denouncing proposed state budget cuts, staged a sit-in outside Gov. Rick Perry’s Capitol office late Tuesday.

Protesters with the disability rights group Adapt of Texas vowed to stay until they were removed or arrested.

Chief organizers Bob Kafka and David Wittie said the group also would disperse if Perry agreed in writing to its demand that Texas use all its rainy-day money and raise other revenue to avoid cuts to community-based long-term-care services. The Republican governor has urged lawmakers not to use any rainy-day money and opposes tax increases.

Some of them wound up getting ticketed, though it’s not clear what for. Perry naturally snuck out the back like the coward he is, leaving his spokesperson to complain about how you’re not supposed to use “disruptive” tactics to get a meeting with him. Oh, and now they’ve erected a barricade to keep those pesky wheelchair warriors out. Way to hide, Governor!

For their part, the protesters said they’d been trying to speak with the Governor since August. Don’t they understand that if they don’t have a large campaign contribution to being him they’re wasting everybody’s time? I mean, clearly the Governor has more important things to do than speak to ordinary people.

Earlier in the day, these folks were joined by some high profile supporters.

TV star and native Texan Eva Longoria stopped by the Capitol today to stand with a couple hundred advocates for continued funding of state programs for people with developmental disabilities.

Longoria said her 43-year-old sister is a special needs resident of a group home in Texas, which could close due to funding cuts in the state budget proposals under consideration.

“We’re not here to ask for more money,” she said “We want to keep what we have fought for for the last 30 years.”

The shuttering of group homes is just one potential consequence of Senate and House budget proposals that make millions of dollars in cuts to programs that serve the state’s developmentally disabled population. According to the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, at least 23 programs across five different state departments will see budget reductions that will affect those with special needs.

Longoria was joined in the shade of the Capitol’s north steps by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

“You have to translate these budget numbers to real human lives,” he instructed the crowd, who visited with legislators following the rally.

The Express News has more extensive coverage of this.

Longoria, whose intellectually disabled sister, Liza, joined her on the stage in the parking lot of the special needs-focused park, wore the same red T-shirt as those in the audience, emblazoned with the words: My Future Is In Your Hands.

After the rally, she boarded one of four buses that squired the throng to Austin, where they were to spend an afternoon rallying on the Capitol steps and meeting with legislators to emphasize their opposition to the cuts.


Alice McIntire, 48, who lives in residential center for those with mental retardation, knew exactly what she planned to tell lawmakers in Austin.

“You’re trying to take my home away from me,” she said. “If you do that I’ll be crying, I’ll be hurt. I don’t want to leave my home.”

Cynthia Benjamin came to the rally with her son Charles, 22, who clutched a plastic dinosaur.

“I can’t tell you how important support agencies are to parents,” she said. “Here’s a perfect example: The other day my son had to be sedated to see the dentist and I couldn’t carry him afterwards. What would I do without help?”

Ana Aponte said she would have to institutionalize her son Luis, who is 33 and has severe autism, if it weren’t for funding that provides services that allows her to keep him at home.

“We want him to be surrounded by his family,” she said.

Tina Chang wonders how she will be able to afford doctor visits and medicine for her two profoundly autistic foster daughters, Linda and Esmeralda, if proposed Medicaid cuts go through.

“If we can’t get services, it hurts our purpose that was given to us by God,” she said.

Someone should mention that to Sen. Patrick. I recommend bringing a sonogram with you when you visit him. To be slightly more serious, the point here is that the overall burden on the state for helping these people is quite small in the context of the budget, but the burden on the families in the absence of the state would be crushing. And the cost to the state and to local governments when families fall apart as a result of that burden will likely be greater than the cost of helping them deal with it in the first place would have been. Oh, and finding savings that don’t hurt people is easier said than done.

Anyway. You can see video from the rally here, here, and here. I wish all these folks the very best of luck in getting their voices heard.

TPC delays vote on TIP

Houston Tomorrow:

The Houston-Galveston Area Council’sTransportation Policy Council (TPC) unanimously voted on Friday morning to delay by thirty days its vote on a full $79.8 million allocation of unprogrammed federal transportation funds toward Mobility – roadway and freight rail – projects and a reallocation of $12.8 million from already committed pedestrian, bicycle, and Livable Centers projects to Mobility projects.

The 30-day delay will allow the public and elected officials to further explore how potential money from the federal Surface Transportation Program Major Metro (STP MM) and Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ) funds should be allocated within the Houston-Galveston region’s2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

The decision came after elected officials heard from more than 20 business, bicycle, pedestrian, and political advocates in attendance, plus thousands of citizens who signed petitions and called officials’ offices during the week to voice their concerns regarding the manner in which federal funds were being distributed toward various transportation modes.

Rather than push a vote through, City of Houston Council member Sue Lovell requested that the TPC delay voting on the issue for 30 days so that elected officials could more carefully examine the options on the table and hear from their constituents.

See here and here for some background. Houston Tomorrow has an online petition that calls for roadway spending to make up no more than 55% of regional transportation infrastructure spending, which it says in accordance with the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. I don’t know enough about the 2035 RTP to comment on that, but I am glad there will be more time to discuss this issue. A press release from CM Lovell about the requested delay to the vote is beneath the fold.