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Senate regrets its own budget

Well, the state Senate finally passed its not-as-godawful-as-the-House-but-still-pretty-bad budget yesterday, and from all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that followed you’d think that maybe it didn’t have to be that way.

“I wish I could say I was proud of this product. I can’t say it. I don’t think it is worthy of the state of Texas,” declared Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, former lieutenant governor and former Senate Finance Committee chairman.

[…]

“Some of these expenses are going to be picked up at the next level, the next level being the county level,” warned Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston.

“I think the (health care) providers need to be prepared for an onslaught,” Lindsay said. “We’re probably going to have a 5 percent ad valorem (property) tax increase … what I think is an almost certain ad valorem tax increase in Harris County.”

[…]

“You’ve heard a lot of talk about things we’re not doing,” said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst after passage of the budget, 26-5. “We’ve focused on maintaining our core essential services. Is it the best budget in the world? It never is.”

Dewhurst pointed out the budget, which is a $4 billion increase over the current budget, fully funds the foundation school program and said state and federal funding for higher education is only 1.3 percent less than it is currently.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini [D-Laredo], vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, however, said the cuts to health care run deep, based upon the Legislative Budget Board’s estimate of projected needs.

By 2005, she said, more than 17,000 elderly and disabled Texas would lose home assistance, while some 13,500 pregnant women would lose prenatal care and delivery services.

Another 208,700 elderly or disabled Texans who are not in nursing homes would no longer have prescription drug coverage. The Senate also placed stricter assets tests on children receiving Medicaid, which is expected to cut enrollment growth by 298,600.

[…]

The Senate budget also calls for 2.7 million fewer textbooks for public school children, cuts health care supplements for teachers from $1,000 annually to $500 and shifts $220 million of the cost for retired teacher health care to local school districts. For the Houston Independent School District, the cost would be $4.5 million.

“We have basically exploded the population in TRS (Teacher Retirement System) Care,” said Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, noting that beneficiaries are using the care at a 14 percent higher rate.

“I think we can do better. I believe the time has come for us to look seriously at revenues,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who voted against the bill along with fellow Democratic Sens. Mario Gallegos of Houston, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, Juan Hinojosa of McAllen and Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, said he’d vote for the bill but said the state’s $1 billion rainy day fund should be completely drained to restore funding to pay for HIV/AIDS drugs, college educational training for prisoners, after-school programs and community care for the disabled and elderly.

“This budget doesn’t have a pay raise for state employees and in fact asks them to pay a little more for their health care,” he said, urging senators who will reconcile the budget with the House to drain the $1 billion rainy day fund.

“I would spend every dime of the rainy day fund,” he said. “As they say, it is raining in Texas.”

Ratliff took umbrage with Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who has blamed the budget crisis on a “spending party” in the past few sessions.

“I take serious exception,” he said.

When the state funded the frail and elderly, community colleges, maternity care and others who will feel “brutal impacts,” he said, “I did not consider that a party. I could not bring myself to call it a spending spree.”

This budget is a failure of leadership, and by that I mean a failure of Governor Rick Perry and his bizarre fetish about spending instead of revenue. Perry trumpeted his love of education during the campaign, then pushed for education funding to get slashed once he was safely elected and denied all responsibility for it afterwards. Meanwhile, our byzantine and broken tax system ensures that our revenue stream will continue to shrink over time and will continue to place a high burden on homeowners. But hey, at least Governor Goodhair is fighting for his economic development slush fund.

The failure also belongs to our Comptroller, Carole Keeton Strayhorn of the ever-inaccurate revenue projections and mulish insistence that there’s no such thing as a Rainy Day. If Strayhorn had given an honest assessment of the hole we’re now in back during the 2002 campaign, then maybe (just maybe) we could have had an honest debate about how the state pays for itself and why the well is running particularly dry. Instead, we got assurances that better times were just around the corner, leaving everyone free to indulge in budget-scrubbing fantasies at the expense of reality. (Yes, that’s an indictment of Tony Sanchez and his pusillanimous promises, too.) How exactly this woman has a reputation for being good at her job is quite beyond me.

I can’t say I’m happy with the job that David Dewhurst has done, but he gets full marks for trying to be serious about this. Given the weasel that we have in the Governor’s mansion and the hardline heartlessness of the state GOP, it’s hard to see how he could have done any better.

There’s not much more that I can say that I haven’t already said, so I’ll close by noting that four of the five Senators who couldn’t bring themselves to rubberstamp this atrocity are Hispanic, and the fifth represents El Paso. Keep that in mind when you hear about the GOP’s grand plan to woo Hispanic voters.

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2 Comments

  1. Smirking Chupacabra says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more – especially about Keeton Rylander Strayhorn and my fellow Aggie, Tricky Ricky. Don’t forget Craddick when you are firing off verbal arrows at the weakest state leadership in memory.

    However, hard as it is for me to say this, I have to give a couple of kudos to someone I have seldom agreed with – Jeff Wentworth. He and I won’t be agreeing on much in the future either I’m guessing, but he seems to be taking his job seriously and understands the gravity of our situation. That’s really all you can expect from your political opponents.

    Also, I’ve always been pretty impressed by Bill Ratliff. He reminds me of those beasts that used to wander the halls of Congress in bygone eras – moderately conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats. While way too conservative for my tastes, Mr. Ratliff seems to understand that not everyone thinks in lockstep with the state GOP platform. We could use a few more like him in the Lege.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Yeah, Craddick deserves brickbats as well, but frankly as far as I can tell he’s just a water carrier for Perry. Not worth the time to heap scorn on him, really.

    I thought Ratliff was a decent Lite Guv, and he’s never bought into the party propaganda on tort reform, so he doesn’t surprise me. Wentworth is apparently a pro-choice Republican, something which I would have sworn had been hunted to extinction around here back in the Reagan years. They’re more of the old guard Texas Lege, which has always been a very collegial and compromising place.

    Thanks for the feedback!