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Our healthcare system is great, if you ignore all those people who can’t afford it

State Rep. John Zerwas demonstrates that being a physician doesn’t make you qualified to talk about health care reform. His article is as embarrassingly idea-free as his national colleagues’ plan was. After the usual paean to tort “reform” and invective about government employees getting between you and your doctor – that’s what insurance companies are for! – he tells us that the rest of the country should be just like us:

There will always be those for whom the government will need to play a role. As the chair of the subcommittee on Health and Human Services of the Appropriations Committee during the 81st session, I can certainly attest to this fact. I joint-authored legislation that would have expanded the CHIP program, because there was not a reasonable market solution to this population — children born into families at 300% or less of the federal poverty level ($66,000/year for a family of four). In addition, I sponsored legislation called the Healthy Texans program intended to encourage competitive health plans for working individuals and small businesses at lower incomes.

Texas enjoys a legacy of stepping up to the plate when the needs of its citizens arise. But we have done so by encouraging the growth of business and making Texas a great state in which to raise families. The federal government should respect the sovereignty of the state in this regard. And just as all politics is local, the delivery of accessible, safe, quality healthcare is local. Let Texans Take Care of Texans!

I’m guessing Zerwas refers to SB841 for the CHIP expansion bill. That died during the chubfest, then was temporarily resuscitated by Sen. Kip Averitt, but ultimately died because – oops! – Governor Perry hates CHIP. For some odd reason, Zerwas did not see fit to mention that.

He also didn’t see fit to mention that Texas has an awful lot of uninsured people. Rep. Garnet Coleman, who has a much clearer grasp of this issue, brings that up.

Brick by brick, the state’s healthcare system has been dismantled over the years. Starting with 2003’s rollback under Speaker Craddick, Medically Needy Medicaid —which prevented medical bankruptcies — was eliminated, then the rolls of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) were slashed, and damaging privatization schemes were embarked upon. It continued this session as the Republican leadership killed a bill despite overwhelming approval in both chambers that would have allowed working parents to purchase CHIP coverage for their children.

If the “states’ rights” leadership in Texas refuses to do anything for our state, then it’s up to Congress to enact reform that will benefit all Americans, especially Texans. The best plan for health insurance reform is one that affordably covers most uninsured Texans, preserves the insurance of those already covered and lowers health care costs.

Texas’ current system has left six million Texans without health insurance. Those who can afford coverage fight every day against skyrocketing premiums, declining benefits, medical bankruptcies, preexisting conditions, and the constant threat of being kicked off their own insurance plan. Because of our dismal health standings, we have the most to gain from federal health insurance reform under consideration.

Lowering costs and maintaining affordability is essential to achieving successful reform. In 2008, an alarming 6.9 million Texans spent more than 20 percent of their income on health related costs. Due to skyrocketing insurance rates, workers are no longer rewarded with a pay raise — they have to settle for keeping their insurance.

Coleman is also referring to SB841, but unlike Zerwas he recognizes it as a failure and not a success, because it didn’t get to the Governor’s desk and would have been vetoed if it had. I’ll give Zerwas credit for trying, but he is at best hopelessly naive about what the true obstacles are to achieving that goal.

Oh, and did you see that bit about the six million Texans without health insurance? That’s 25% of the state population. If you go back to that Ezra Klein post, the CBO estimate for the US is 17 percent of legal, non-elderly residents won’t have health-care insurance in 2010. If we remove those over 65 (10.2% of the population, or about 2.4 million) and the undocumented immigrants (estimated to be 1.4 million in fiscal year 2005), those six million uninsured represent about 30% of the relevant total. And even if you assume that 6 million figure includes all 1.4 million undocumented immigrants, and subtract them from each population, we’re still at 20% of legal residents, and 22% of legal, non-elderly residents. In other words, Texas fares way worse on this metric than the country as a whole. There’s a reason the rest of the country isn’t interested in doing as we do.

Easing eligibility requirements on food stamps

I suppose you could consider this to be a small benefit of the food stamps snafu.

Texas is easing a requirement that most families on food stamps must be interviewed every six months, a step that will relieve pressure on the system for determining who receives state aid, officials said Tuesday.

The story doesn’t go into any detail about what that “easing” of the requirement means. My guess is that it means the review of eligibility will be pushed back to a 12-month cycle instead of every six months for the recipients. I say this because we’ve done that before, also for the purpose of relieving a backlog. Makes you wonder why we didn’t just leave it at that, but that’s Texas for you. We do 12-month re-ups with CHIP, though it was a struggle to get there, but we don’t do it with Medicaid. I guess it’s not a sufficient crisis for that yet.

That’s a wrap for the special session

I don’t know if it’s a record, but a little more than 30 hours after they gaveled in yesterday, both chambers adjourned sine die today, bringing the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it special session to a close. As noted yesterday, the two bills deemed to be actual needs, SB2 to extend the life of the state agencies that had been left hanging in June, and HB1 to appropriate bond money for transportation projects, passed easily. The third item on the call, addressing comprehensive development agreements (CDAs) for toll roads, which was considered by the Lege to be optional, withered on the vine in the face of stiff opposition and a preference to do nothing rather than fight it out. With nothing else to do – nobody really expected Governor Perry to extend the call for anything else, despite the numerous other bills that were pre-filed, just in case – they called it quits. And a grateful state breathes a sigh of relief, not to mention a bunch of newsies and bloggers that were looking forward to a peaceful holiday weekend.

One is left to wonder why Perry bothered with the CDA agenda item when it became clear so rapidly that it was going nowhere. Burka in particular thinks it was a mistake.

The governor’s fight for more toll roads and more Comprehensive Development Agreements makes no sense politically. It puts the spotlight directly on his most controversial policy. It’s a heaven-sent opportunity for Kay Bailey Hutchison to differentiate herself from Perry, but when I spoke to a Hutchison adviser today, I heard the same line, that she does not want to engage with the Perry at this time. If not now, on the best issue for her, when?

We all know that Rick Perry couldn’t lead a pack of starving dogs to a side of beef, but luckily for him he has a primary opponent – a theoretical one, anyway – that likes to keep her powder really, really, really dry. I’m sure she’ll have something to say about this eventually, once she figures out what it is.

Speaking of Burka, I’d like to recall these words of his from late May, when the word “chubbing” first entered our vocabularies.

As everyone knows, the Democrats’ stalling tactics are an attempt to derail the Voter I.D. bill. It won’t work. This is Friday. They have to chub until Tuesday midnight. Not a chance.

And even if the Democrats were to succeed in chubbing Voter I.D. to death and other bills the D’s don’t like (TDI Sunset, Top 10 Percent), it wouldn’t matter. Perry will call a special session to pass the voter ID bill. Why are they fighting battles that they can’t win–and, worse, will hand Perry a victory?

As we now know, the Democrats did successfully chub through Tuesday at midnight; in fact, they were so successful at pushing voter ID off the calendar that they eased up on the brakes towards the end. And as we also now know, voter ID will not be taken up in this special session, and barring anything unusual it won’t be taken up at all again. I had my reservations about this choice of strategy as well – I thought if there was any chance of beating it in a vote, which might have happened with the Rs having only 74 voting members due to Rep. Kuempel’s heart attack, it should have been taken – and for the same reason, but in the end a successful strategy is one that works. This one worked, and I think that should be recognized.

Finally, in the matter of things that deserved a second chance but didn’t get one, I’ve pasted a press release from Rep. Garnet Coleman regarding CHIP beneath the fold. KBH may not know how to attack Rick Perry’s lack of leadership, but Coleman certainly doesn’t suffer from that malady.

UPDATE: In case anyone was curious, Governor Perry is satisfied with how the session went, as is Speaker Straus.


Special session starts tomorrow

The special session everyone knew was coming to address the disposition of several state agencies begins tomorrow. So far, at least, the agenda hasn’t changed from the original call.

Gov. Rick Perry is being pressed to add issues ranging from children’s health care to voter identification to the agenda of the special session that begins Wednesday, but his answer is still no.

Perry, a Republican, made clear when he called the session last week that he wants lawmakers to take just a few days to complete must-do business left undone in the regular session, then be gone.

He hasn’t changed his mind, spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Monday: “The governor has already announced what will be addressed during the special session and at this time doesn’t have any intentions to expand the call.”

“At this time” certainly leaves wiggle room for him. There have been plenty of other bills filed for the session in the event the Governor uses that wiggle room, including a CHIP expansion provision that already has majority support in the House. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t have is Perry’s support, so I wouldn’t hold my breath. As for voter ID, the best assurance we’ve got right now is this sentiment:

Rep. Betty Brown, R-Athens, said she has asked Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus for a commitment to address voter ID in the special session.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said he hasn’t – and won’t – ask Perry to add the issue: “I want to get in here and get it over with and get back home.”

Amen to that. House Speaker Joe Straus has a vision for how that will happen.

[Monday], three House bills [were] pre-filed that correspond to Gov. Rick Perry’s agenda: The Sunset scheduling bill for the transportation, insurance, racing and two smaller agencies; authorization of $2 billion in transportation bonds and creation of the Texas Transportation Revolving Fund, and extension of comprehensive development agreements to build roads.

On Wednesday, the Legislature will convene at 10 a.m. Those House bills will promptly be assigned to three House committees — Appropriations, State Affairs and Transportation— for the required public hearings.

On Thursday, the House is expected to have its first calendar for consideration. Committees are expected to have approved the bills the previous day, if everything goes on schedule.

On Friday, “if it is the will of the members to do so, we will conclude our business.”

According to the Straus memo, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, will author the transportation bond bill; state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, chairman of the Sunset Advisory Bill, will carry the Sunset bill, and Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, will carry the so-called CDA bill.

To expedite the three-day express schedule, a special briefing for House members and their staffs will be held at 1:30 Tuesday in the Capitol Auditorium to answer questions about the bills.

The question is what happens if one item on the call doesn’t get swift approval?

arried a bill that would have extended by six years the legal authority for TxDOT and regional mobility authorities to sign what have usually been 50-year contracts with private companies to build and operate (and profit from) tollways on public land. Authority for such leases expires Sept. 1.

The general understanding was that the legislation’s final passage was dependent on approval of a separate bill by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, that would put limits on such contracts. Both bills passed the House and Senate, either with their original bill numbers or as part of the main TxDOT bill that died late in the session.

The question is, will that linkage still be the case in the special session? Nichols said Monday that it had better be, or the toll road item could end up in the ditch.

“I feel very strongly about it, and so do many” other senators, Nichols said.

Carona said Monday that he could see eliminating at least some of what Nichols had in mind if a toll road lease extension were passed that applied to only a handful of projects for which officials have already decided who — TxDOT or local toll authorities — will be in charge of the projects. That list reportedly includes extending the Texas 130 tollway north from Georgetown to Hillsboro, building the new Interstate 69 from south of Refugio to the Rio Grande Valley and adding toll lanes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

However, even in those cases, Carona said, “you’d have to have at least put some protections in there.”


So, what would Perry do if something close to [Nichols’ bill] were attached to the extension legislation in the special session? Some officials said that such an amendment could be determined to be outside the scope of Perry’s call. Nichols disagrees with that.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Perry’s staff is talking with Nichols’ office to discuss his concerns.

Carona said, “One source in the governor’s office indicated that any bill that contained the Nichols language would be vetoed. Another said that’s not necessarily so.”

Yes, well, we know how good Perry’s staff is at communicating the Governor’s intentions in these matters. I feel reassured, don’t you?

More on the special session

Governor Perry speaks about the upcoming special session.

All were left unaddressed when the Legislature adjourned June 1. Perry told reporters he expects lawmakers to finish their work in “72 to 96 hours. I think that’s three to four days, right? My Aggie math — y’all kind of check me on that.”

Perry said he won’t place the contentious issue of voter identification before lawmakers, even though the call for stricter voter identification is a priority for GOP leaders and lawmakers.

A fight over the issue stalled action in the regular session and undoubtedly would tie up the special session, which can last up to 30 days. The governor sets the agenda for special sessions and determines when they start.

“Look, we clearly believe that the issues that we’re going to address are the ones that have to be taken care of,” Perry told reporters after a separate speech. “We’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods here when you talk about the Department of Insurance, when you’re talking about TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation) … I want those employees to understand that we’re going to get this bill passed and we’re not going to take a chance on … any legislative mischief from some other piece of legislation.”

Agencies that need legislation to continue also include the Texas Racing Commission, Office of Public Insurance Counsel and Texas State Affordable Housing Corp.

When I first read this, I felt a twinge of paranoia, because there was nothing in here to indicate that voter ID would not be taken up after these issues have been dealt with. I know I’ve opined that if Perry were going to do this, he’d be telegraphing his position, but that doesn’t mean I’m feeling at ease. However, someone must have asked about this, because Perry did address it:

Perry said even if the issues he specifically listed are wrapped up, he won’t expand the scope of the special session to include voter ID.

Well okay then. I doubt I’ll completely shake that nagging feeling, at least until sine die, but that does help. Now how likely is it that this thing really will last only 3 or 4 days?

“To get this done in three days is very ambitious and requires the cooperation of a lot of people,” says rules expert Hugh Brady. “You’re really going to have to bust a hump if you’re going to get this done by Friday afternoon.”

More contested legislation like the Voter ID Bill and CHIP expansion have been kept off the agenda, and Perry says he doesn’t anticipate adding anything new while the session’s underway. But even with such a narrow set of issues on the call, lawmakers have a lot of leeway about what amendments they can add to bills.

True, the House Parliamentarian could always adopt a very strict interpretation of what amendments are germane to certain bills, but that would be going against several judicial and legislative precedents, Brady says. “If the House or the Senate really wants to, they could take a narrow bill and try to expand it to add consumer protection or whatever they’d like to add onto it.” So lawmakers could still add amendments that substantially reform TxDoT and the insurance department, and it may take more than a few days to do so: just passing a bill in a three-day period would require suspending certain rules, he added.

But will they really want to? In that sense, at least, Perry timed his session well. As Brady points out, “it’s the middle of the summer and nobody really wants to be here.”

Sounds about right to me. We’ll see how it plays out. Rep. Pena has more.

Special session for July 1

We knew it was coming, and here it is.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF TEXAS, by the authority vested in me by Article IV, Section 8, of the Texas Constitution, do hereby call an extraordinary session of the 81st Legislature, to be convened in the City of Austin, commencing at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the 1st day of July 2009, for the following purposes:

To consider legislation that provides for extending the existence of several state agencies that were subject to sunset review by the 81st Legislature and will be abolished without legislative action under the state’s Sunset Act, that changes the review schedule for certain state agencies to balance the workload of the Sunset Advisory Commission.

To consider legislation relating to the issuance by the Texas Transportation Commission, pursuant to Article III, Section 49-p, of the Texas Constitution, of general obligation bonds for highway improvement projects, and to the creation, administration, financing and use of a Texas Transportation Revolving Fund to provide financial assistance for transportation projects.

To consider legislation relating to the date on which the authority of the Texas Department of Transportation and a regional mobility authority to enter into a comprehensive development agreement expires.

The Secretary of State will take notice of this action and will notify the members of the legislature of my action.

I skipped all the “whereas”es – you can click the link if you care. As promised, a very short agenda, which theoretically and and quite likely will be completed before the July 4 holiday. Which would be fine by me, and I daresay most if not all of the legislators themselves. I know there was a lot of support for having CHIP legislation on the call, but given Perry’s continuing opposition to it, I never thought that had a chance. The question at this point is whether or not Perry will add to the call once these items are done, or if they’ll adjourn sine die once again. We’ll know soon enough.

Schieffer announces

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is out. State Sen. Kirk Watson may or may not jump in. Tom Schieffer is in.

After a rally in front of the Fort Worth elementary school he attended, Schieffer plans stops in Houston and Austin as he seeks the Democratic nomination for governor. He’ll be in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley Thursday.

“People know there is something wrong – they know that Texas is falling behind. They are worried about it,” Schieffer said in an interview last week with the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle.

“They want better than what we’ve got now,” Schieffer said. “They’re worried about kind of a sense that state government is going through a know-nothing phase of you don’t have to be thoughtful, you don’t have to be serious, you just have to mouth the buzz words that appeal to people’s prejudices and not to their hopes and dreams.”

Schieffer cited concern over school dropout rates, saying young people are “going to fall behind, and they’re not going to wind up being taxpayers, they’re going to wind up being tax consumers.”

If that continues, he said, “no level of taxes … will support the services that you have to have in this state, and I’m afraid we’re literally on the road to disaster.”


Schieffer said in the interview that many decisions – including failure to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program and draw down more federal money – have been shortsighted.

“That’s great political rhetoric in a Republican primary, but it’s not good public policy, because what happens is that kids still get asthma. They still get sick. And when they’re not covered by health insurance, and they don’t have a doctor who is providing an inhaler to ‘em or that they’re seeing on a regular basis, they wind up in the emergency room in the county hospital,” Schieffer said.

“The kid is out of school. The parents are out of work to take care of the kid. It is the most inefficient, most unproductive way to deliver that health care to those kids – and by the way, it’s not the right thing to do, either,” Schieffer said.

Among other areas, Schieffer also noted the rise in college tuition rates after they were deregulated, saying the state should set rates to ensure higher education is “as economical as possible.”

While addressing the concerns he identified would appear to require an infusion of state revenue, Schieffer didn’t address such specifics when asked in the interview. He said wants to have a thoughtful discussion about public policy with all interested parties at the table to come up with solutions. He said he’ll lay out more detailed plans as the campaign unfolds.

Schieffer did say that property taxes “have pretty well been exhausted’ and that he doesn’t like an income tax.

“I think sales taxes work better than anything else at the state level, but I think you have to sit down and you have to talk about things and you have to do it in a serious way,” he said.

Schieffer said that Perry “talks a lot about a good business climate. I want a good business climate. I’ve got more business experience than Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison combined. But a good business climate is not just having low business taxes. It is having an educational system that can produce the workers of the modern world.”

You’re not going to get there on sales taxes, which I hope Schieffer will realize when he has that serious sit-down with whoever he’ll be talking to about it. Other than that, I’d call this a good start. If Schieffer’s definition of “centrism” is about supporting CHIP and education and casting opposition to those things as being extreme, that’ll help alleviate some doubts about him. He still has a lot of work to do, and I still hope for some more options in this race, if only to ensure a better primary, but I feel like the Democrats at least have a reasonable fallback position in Schieffer. Now we need to go from there.

Other reactions: Greg has some advice for Schieffer. Campos says “As long as the frontline of Lone Star statewide Dems candidates is made up of Anglo fellas, I don’t see a scenario where the Dem base gets revved up – sorry – no se puede.” RBearSAT thinks Sen. Van de Putte made a wide decision, and hopes she runs for Lite Gov. David Mauro considers the repercussions in Travis County if Sen. Watson aims statewide. Phillip has three quick reactions to Schieffer’s announcement. Gardner Selby lists five ways Schieffer could stand or stumble. Martha likes the idea of Sen. Watson running for Governor.

TxDOT lives, Lege adjourns

The threat of a special session has been averted…we think.

The House just voted to work the Legislature out of a jam by keeping open the Texas Department of Transportation and other state agencies at risk of closing.

Members needed a little handiwork to make it happen, and some would say they flat ignored House rules to do it.

The problem began Sunday, when the Legislature failed to pass a bill keeping open the transportation agency, the Texas Department of Insurance and a handful of other agencies. Those agencies were up for review by the Legislature this year, and so they were scheduled to close if those reviews were not complete.

Today, the last day of the legislative session, is supposed to be only for technical corrections to bills. The House just made what sponsors called a technical correction to a bill authorizing state agencies to receive federal stimulus dollars.

Agencies have to be open in order to get stimulus dollars, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts. So the House corrected the stimulus bills to say that the departments at risk would stay open.

As with everything else, that was not without controversy.

Reps. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas and Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, protested that lawmakers were doing an end-run on traditions and rules that allow only minor tweaks to bills on the session’s final day. They said the concurrent resolution, passed by a vote of 111-29, made substantive changes in law. It would prevent closure of the transportation and insurance departments this fall. With Senate approval, they and three other small agencies would face “sunset” review by lawmakers next session.

One advantage of the resolution is it averted a need to get two-thirds of House members to suspend rules to bring back to life a “safety net” bill that would take the agencies off the chopping block. Since the voter ID meltdown in the House last month, Republicans have been loath to suspend rules, calling it a matter of principle.

Turner and Davis, however, said House leaders were playing fast and loose with rules, setting a very bad precedent.

Turner called it “a blatant and intentional attempt to circumvent the rules.”

Davis said, “It’s ironic that we’re here to make laws for people to abide by and we won’t even stand by our own rules.”

Speaker Joe Straus, though, rejected parliamentary objections by Davis and Turner.

I’ve kinda lost track of how many bad precedents have been set this session. What’s one more for the road?

Of course, if after all that the House still managed to screw things up

The Senate has just retired en masse into a closed-door meeting to discuss the resolution the Texas House passed about an hour ago to continue operations at the Texas Department of Transportation.

Word is there could be a problem with the House wording: It may not allow TxDOT to issue the $2 billion in bonds it needs to continue road-building projects.

Big problem that would be.

I’m going to go find a paper bag to breathe into. Talk amongst yourselves.

While I will cling stubbornly to the belief that no special session is in the offing – Governor Perry wasn’t too worked up about the possibility earlier today, I do wish something could have been done to salvage CHIP.

“CHIP is dead,” said State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, a supporter of expanding the program.

Dukes said she was disappointed that her colleagues didn’t make the effort to massage parliamentary rules for CHIP as they did today for a “sunset” safety-net bill that keeps agencies operating.

“They changed the rules for what they desired,” Dukes said. “But no rules were suspended for those children in great need.”

There were bigger obstacles than the rules, or the chubfest, in the way, as Rick Perry was vowing to veto any CHIP expansion legislation that crossed his desk. The only way forward for this is with someone else in the Governor’s mansion. A statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman about this is beneath the fold. May this be the last post of the 2009 legislative session.

UPDATE: It’s unclear what, if anything, the Senate is going to do about the un-authorized bonds. It’s also unclear if that’s a problem. At least windstorm is a done deal.


One threat of a special session averted, another arises


In a surprise ending to the second-to-last day of the legislative session, the House failed to pass the so-called sunset safety net bill, HB1959, before the midnight deadline tonight for the chamber to approve bills.

The bill would allow agencies like the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Department of Insurance and others that were supposed to be sunset this year to continue even though lawmakers failed to pass legislation renewing the agencies.

State Rep. David Liebowitz, D-San Antonio, first tagged the bill and then asked questions about the bill right up until the midnight deadline.

But it’s not like Texas can go without a state transportation agency. So without some sort of legislation to keep it going for the next two years, Gov. Rick Perry would likely have to call lawmakers back to get the job done in a special legislative session.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said he would work tonight to find some way to revive the bill Monday, the final day of the 140-day legislative session.

“We’ve got one more day,” Straus said.

Apparently, this was a deliberate decision to allow some other bills that had been lost in the last-minute stampede to get a second chance, though there were also some objections to the substance of the bill.

Several members said a group of Democrats decided to go through with the bold maneuver as a way to force other issues to get a vote tomorrow, most notably pushing for an expansion of the Childrens Health Insurance Program (even though Perry has already vowed to veto that measure).

Since the deadline was midnight tonight, members can only take up any bills Monday if 2/3s of the House agree to do so. It’s unclear whether the votes are there.

When asked if he was surprised by how the day ended, Straus said, “Nothing surprises me. What’s a little chaos before we go home.”

A vote came up for members to consider not adjourning and pushing back the deadline. The vote failed 86 to 56.

At this point, who knows what’s going to happen? All I can say is I sure hope HB1959, at least, gets a vote. One of the bills that this tactic was meant for was SB2080, which had become the vehicle to save the CHIP expansion provision. It passed the Senate unanimously last night but didn’t come to the House floor in time for a vote. I gather there’s optimism about the possibility of taking one last crack at these things today, and given how the entire session has gone, I’m loath to make predictions about one bill or another’s demise. I’m not even sure if I should be applauding or cringing. Elise and Floor Pass have more.

Budget heads to the Governor

In the end, thanks in large part to the stimulus package and its infusion of funds that prevented the need to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, the budget process was relatively uncontroversial. Yesterday, it was passed by the House, and is now on its way to Governor Perry’s desk.

With just three days left in the 81st Texas Legislature, the only thing certain was the state’s $182.3 billion budget, which, among other things, increases spending for the mentally disabled, correctional officer salaries, college financial aid and pre-kindergarten programs. Most of the money, which includes $12.1 billion in federal economic stimulus dollars, is dedicated to education and health care.

The vote in the House was 142-2, after unanimous passage in the Senate. Perry is certain to do some line-item vetoing, if only to remind us that he can. Odds are he’ll pick something that no one will see coming. We’ll know soon enough.

Of greater interest at this time is the handful of bills that are still struggling to stay alive.

The House kept the debate on windstorm insurance reform alive by agreeing to seek a compromise on the bill in a joint conference committee. Perry has told lawmakers he will call a special session if the windstorm insurance reform does not pass.

At issue is how to keep solvent the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which provides insurance for homeowners who cannot find private coverage — without pushing insurance rates up. Hurricanes Ike and Dolly busted the association with an unexpected $2 billion in payouts.

Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood said they hope to reach a settlement so as “not to have a special session.”

Here’s the conference committee information. They have till midnight tonight to work it out, get a bill printed, and distribute it to members. Tall order, but doable.

Also Friday, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, said he was still trying to revive the Children’s Health Insurance Program. An effort earlier this week to piggyback CHIP on a bill for newborn disease screening did not comply with House rules that subjects be “germane.”

Although a coalition representing 70 groups called on legislative leaders to “take all necessary means” to pass the bill, the prospect is dim.

Apparently, the measure to which the CHIP bill had been attached as an amendment, which had originally been sent back by the House because author Paula Pierson didn’t think it would concur, has now been approved for a conference committee, but that’s to remove the CHIP amendment so the original bill, having to do with newborn screening, can pass. There’s still the original House CHIP bill by Rep. Garnet Coleman, which hasn’t been approved by the Senate but still could if they agree to suspend the rules to bring it up. I’m not holding my breath on that one. The Chron editorializes today in favor of taking action, while Rick Casey took Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Steve Ogden to task for not getting this right the first time.

Disputes also were holding up a bill to renew the life of the Texas Department of Transportation for another two years. Portions of the bill call for a local option gas tax, supported by business leaders and elected officials from North Texas and San Antonio.

In Harris County, officials are keeping an eye on a provision that could limit or ban new cameras being placed at intersections to catch red-light runners.

That one could get ugly. Rep. Joe Pickett has called out lobbyists who are agitating over the local-option tax, which has both strong support and strong opposition. More from McBlogger and EoW, both of whom are in the latter camp. On a tangential note, the Chron rails against the attempt by the state to meddle in local affairs regarding red light cameras.

Finally, one bit of bad news.

At the stroke of midnight on Friday, House Bill 1243 turned into a pumpkin and a fairy godmother was nowhere to be found to save it or the electric cooperative measure attached to it.

Provisions to improve accountability in the electric cooperatives, including Pedernales Electric Cooperative, had been tacked on to the bill in the Senate. And Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, challenged whether that amendment and others belonged on the bill.

A lengthy confab at the dais followed by a postponement delayed a vote on whether to send the bill to a conference committee, called for by Turner, until shortly before midnight. That vote failed 48 to 90.

But by the time Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, stepped to the microphone to save the bill, it was too late.

Another half-hour of parliamentary hand-wringing ensued. But, in the end, the glass slipper didn’t fit.

That unfortunately means that SB545, the solar bill, is dead as well. Major bummer about that.

CHIP dies again


Gov. Rick Perry today indicated that he opposes a plan to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program, putting in jeopardy of a veto a measure that has been a top priority this session for children’s advocates.

But the CHIP bill appears unlikely to make it to his desk at all. The House today rejected a Senate attempt to attach it to an unrelated measure.

Talking with reporters, Perry was asked if he’d consider having the Legislature take up CHIP if he calls a special session. He said no.

When asked why not, Perry said: “I would probably not be in favor of that expansion even if it came to my desk. I think the members know that. That is not what I consider to be a piece of legislation that has the vast support of the people of the state of Texas.”


The Senate late Wednesday revived the CHIP legislation by attaching it to a measure about newborn screening, and the CHIP bill’s Senate author, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, sent out a press release declaring: “Averitt saves CHIP.”

The author of the newborn screening measure, Rep. Paula Pierson, D-Arlington, who supports the CHIP expansion, said today the House is sending the screening bill back to the Senate. That’s because the CHIP amendment would have doomed the measure in the House, she said. “It was dead on arrival,” Pierson said.

I presume that the likelihood of a point of order, which would have scuttled the bill, was enough to get the House to send it back. Our Governor, as a matter of policy, thinks that having fewer kids be able to get access to health care is a preferable outcome. And for this, he’s the darling of those who call themselves Christian activists. Go figure. Rep. Garnet Coleman, in a statement he sent out to the press, speaks for me:

It is unconscionable, in these tough economic times, that Governor Perry will veto legislation that will help working Texas parents purchase insurance for their children. Legislation creating a buy-in program for CHIP passed last night with a 29-2 vote in the Senate, and it passed last month from the House with a vote of 87-55. This bill was specifically written with the strictest “crowd out” language possible to ensure that private health insurance is not substituted by CHIP coverage. The Governor is clearly out of touch with the needs of Texas.

Sadly, that’s been that’s been the case for a long time. We’re all the worse for it.

Unemployment insurance dies, CHIP lives

Not unexpectedly, SB1569 was a casualty of the weekend chubfest. Also not surprisingly, it was basically chubbed by Republicans, who wanted to ensure its death as the local and consent calendar was finally finished up a little before the midnight deadline. I’m disappointed to see this bill die, but given that it hadn’t been passed by a veto-proof majority in time for the inevitable veto to be overridden, it was doomed anyway. If that helps the House Republicans blow off some steam, then so be it.

On the good side, CHIP expansion got new life.

The Texas Senate late Wednesday, facing a midnight deadline, used a House bill concerning newborn screening to revive a measure aimed at expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, put SB841 (the CHIP expansion bill) into HB1795, which was approved 28-2 by the Senate.

The CHIP amendment allows some families with incomes above current limits to buy into the insurance program.

The measure now heads back to the House with changes approved in the Senate.

One hopes it will be accepted as amended. That’s at least one less casualty from the weekend.

I’m including an excerpt from Ed Sills’ Texas AFL-CIO email newsletter about SB1569 beneath the fold. Click on to read it.

UPDATE: Floor Pass, quoting Harvey Kronberg, thinks the CHIP add-on might fall victim to a point of order.


And so the chubbing comes to an end

So, as far as I know at this point, SB362 is dead, other bills may or may not be dead, and some semblance of normality will return to the House for the remaining days of the session. After seeing so much analysis, hand-wringing, name-calling, and what have you over the weekend, I think it may be premature to speculate as to what the fallout of all this may be. It may wind up that most of the bills people were fretting and arguing about pass anyway, and most of the ones that end up dead were always fated to die one way or another. We may yet have a special session, or we may not – even Burka is now equivocal about the possibility. I’ll simply observe that Rick Perry hasn’t telegraphed his intentions, which as best I recall is not how he’d operated in the past in calling specials. Not definitive by any stretch, but at least moderately suggestive.

If in the end most bills wind up getting passed, then the question is how does this play out in the 2010 elections. Voter ID, at least the concept of it, has a fair amount of support in the polls. You could probably knock it down a fair amount with some detailed information, but having to go into that kind of detail is generally not winning politics. On the other hand, I daresay that support is fairly shallow. Present it as a matter of priority, with voter ID being put ahead of things like insurance reform, and I bet it’s not nearly the winner it is in a vacuum. I’d bet it barely registers in an open-ended “what’s your top priority” poll question. So while I’m sure the Rs think they have an issue, I know the Ds think they do as well. And if you want to make it about obstructionism, my general belief is that in most cases it’s the majority party that gets the blame when stuff the electorate perceives as important doesn’t get done. That’s not universal – ask the national GOP how their obstructive efforts paid off for them last year – but I think it’s the starting point. Each side can claim they had priorities that they tried to enact but were prevented from doing so. All I know is I’ll put mine up against theirs any day. I’m sure they see it the same way.

I guess if I have one prediction to make coming out of this, it’s that the Speaker will be elected in 2011 with primary support from his or her own party. Just another reason to get that Democratic majority in the House, as if another were needed. For the rest, I’ll wait to see what the runes look like before I begin casting them.

Perry’s salvage job

How can you tell that sine die is approaching? Governor Perry starts getting involved in the legislative process.

Perhaps state lawmakers are fatigued by Gov. Rick Perry’s long tenure or maybe they’re just balking at his leadership, but the Republican-led Legislature this year has turned its back repeatedly on the governor’s decisions and policy positions.

The Senate has rejected a Perry appointee to the parole board as incompetent for the job. His nominee for Board of Education chairman is in grave danger. The House last month stripped Perry’s office of most of its funding in the budget debate, and the money had to be restored in a joint conference committee.

House lawmakers also voted to abolish the Texas Department of Transportation, which is chaired by Perry’s former chief of staff, and replace it with an elected commission. Not to mention the controversial $555 million in federal stimulus money that Perry wants to reject and lawmakers seemed poised to accept.

Publicly, Perry responds by exuding a “what-me-worry?” attitude.

“I don’t ever get concerned about what goes on in the Legislature,” Perry said recently. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It ebbs and flows.”

However, this past week, the governor engaged in a major effort to salvage his legislative agenda and public persona.

Perry threatened a special session if his emergency item on windstorm insurance reform does not pass. In state and national publications, he sought to clarify his nationally publicized remarks on Texas secession from the union. And Perry lobbied lawmakers on the House floor for passage of major restrictions on top 10 percent admissions to state universities — a bill that had not been on Perry’s list of priorities previously.

I suppose this is a companion piece to one from a week ago, during which time the McLeroy nomination got re-animated though not necessarily resuscitated. We still don’t know the status of the Texas Enterprise Fund in the budget, and the unemployment insurance bill still hasn’t passed, thanks in part to the ongoing chubfest. A deal has now apparently been reached on the Top Ten law, though whether it really achieves what Perry wanted it to or not I couldn’t say. So as before, tune in tomorrow, or maybe a few days from now, to see how much of a victory Perry gets to declare.

Perry’s staff also had to spend part of the week distancing him from his chief campaign consultant, who told the Dallas newspaper that expanding the GOP philosophical base is like opening a “whorehouse.” Several prominent Republican women denounced the statement in a letter to Perry as “in keeping with how you’ve governed — through division and an appeal to fear.”‘


“The governor is clearly distracted by an upcoming battle in the Republican primary and is probably is somewhat less focused on the range of issues that he might have been focused on,” [Sen. John] Carona said.

Many believe that Perry, by attacking the federal government and the Obama administration, is trying to shore up hard right support for his expected GOP primary re-election challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

“A lot of decisions, from my vantage point, appear to tempered by what appeals to the far right element in a Republican primary, and that can wreak havoc on the system,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

Yeah, some of us have been saying that Perry’s agenda for this entire session should be viewed through the 2010 GOP primary prism for awhile now. Say whatever else you want about our Governor, he’s not subtle, and while his motives may be unintelligible, they’re seldom a mystery.

Another win for CHIP

Good news on the CHIP front.

The Texas House today gave final approval to a measure that would expand the Children’s Heath Insurance Program by allowing certain families who earn more than the current income limit to pay to join the program. The vote was 87-55.

The measure could add some 80,000 children to CHIP. It now heads to the Senate, which has already passed a similar measure.

The bill passed yesterday is HB2962. The Senate measure that had passed earlier is SB841.

The author of the CHIP bill, Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he fully agrees with expanding the Medicaid enrollment period. But he said that sending the CHIP bill to the Senate with the Medicaid measure attached may have doomed the entire measure. “It would have become a poison pill,” Coleman said.

The Medicaid proposal by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D- Houston, has a much larger price tag than the CHIP one — nearly $300 million over two years, compared to about $40 million for the CHIP bill. The Medicaid proposal could add some 258,000 children to Medicaid.

Coleman said that it’s become clear that the state budget won’t include money for the Medicaid proposal. Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who is on the House team negotiating the final version of the budget with members of the Senate, said that though the Medicaid bill has “a pretty steep price tag,” it’s too early to say for sure whether it has a future in the budget.

The income limit for CHIP is now $44,100 for a family of four. (It’s $22,050 for Medicaid).

Under the CHIP bill, a family of four earning between $44,100 and and $66,150 a year could join the program. Unlike the existing CHIP program, families would pay monthly premiums on a sliding scale based on income and family size. The House version would also allow families of four earning between $66,150 and $88,200 to pay the full cost of the program to join (roughly $150 per child per month). Also, the House version would reinstate a “medically needy” program for adults that the Legislature cut in 2003 — it covers health care costs for people with catastrophic medical needs.

It would be very nice to be able to add those kids to Medicaid, but given the Senate’s manufactured crisis over Medicaid, I’m not optimistic. Still, it’s great to see CHIP getting re-expanded back towards pre-2003 numbers. The need for it is as great as it’s ever been, that’s for sure. I’ve got a statement from Rep. Coleman about this beneath the fold.


Is there a Medicaid issue or not?

Earlier this week, Sen. Steve Ogden and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made the claim that Medicaid would require another $1 billion from the budget, and that this would constrain the budget reconciliation committee as it tries to fund everything that’s been appropriated. I thought that sounded ominous, but to others it sounds overblown.

[P]owerful lawmakers usually low-ball what Medicaid will cost to help them balance the budget. But now, they are “high-balling,” or maybe we should say “true-balling” them? What gives?

Normally, after knowingly putting into the budget too little money for Medicaid, lawmakers then come back the next session and pass a stopgap spending bill. It plugs holes in the soon-to-be-history two year budget, with Medicaid the biggest shortfall, usually. Because Medicaid is an entitlement, recipients get seen and their medical bills get paid.

But this session, [the Legislative Budget Board] has suddenly upped its projections so that they actually exceed the commission’s for two of the next three years. How unusual.

I asked [former state Medicaid program official Anne Dunkelberg] if she thought Senate GOP leaders are trying to discourage passage of any more bills that would authorize more spending, in areas such as children’s health care or expanded pre-kindergarten instruction.

Her response:

“After 20-plus years of tracking Texas Medicaid budgets, it is hard not to be a little sceptical when there is such a noticeable change in assumptions. For the last decade or more, when major assumptions have changed mid-session, it has always been to lower the Medicaid budget total, so you really take notice when they take it in the other direction. The HHSC agency folks think this is just the LBB coming to their senses about the true cost of the program, but a darker interpretation could certainly be that there is a desire to slow the momentum behind the movement to provide more uninsured kids health care and expand acces to pre-K.

The timing of that is interesting, given that the Senate just approved a buy-in program for CHIP that would provide health care to more uninsured kids. Patricia Kilday Hart says “Senate leaders are choosing to lock up as much money as possible in paying for entitlements. The practical effect is this will make funding of discretionary programs more difficult.”, to which Burka adds that this is a “created crisis” that is potentially a large point of contention between the House and the Senate negotiators. Clearly, we need to keep an eye on this.

CHIP and Medicaid advance

Good news for CHIP and Medicaid.

The House Committee on Human Services approved a measure that would expand eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a move the bill’s author, Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said would add 80,000 children to the program.

The bill would allow certain families earning more than the current income limit — about $44,000 for a family of four — to pay to join the program.

The Senate Finance Committee passed a measure by Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, that would also allow families above the income limit to pay to join CHIP, though it differs from Coleman’s bill.

The House panel also passed a measure by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, that would allow families to stay in children’s Medicaid for a full year rather than having to reapply every six months.

The first bill is HB2962, the Averitt bill appears to be SB841, and I can’t tell what the Turner bill is. Here’s a statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman’s about what happened:

State Representative Garnet F. Coleman (D-Houston), who helped create the original Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), applauds Chairman Patrick Rose and the members of the House Committee on Health and Human Services for voting out CSHB 2962, which is a positive step in restoring CHIP coverage to its intended levels. Rep. Coleman also applauds the efforts of the members of the House Appropriations Committee for providing the funding to make this possible.

This bill is a collaborative product of the efforts of several members of the legislature, as well as other Texans concerned with the high number of uninsured children in the state,” said Rep. Coleman. “It is estimated that this legislation will help insure 80,000 of Texas’ neediest children.”

CSHB 2962 expands CHIP eligibility to include children from families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill includes a buy in option, at no cost to the state, for children from families with a net income up to 400 percent above the federal poverty level, who were previously enrolled in CHIP but lose coverage due to an increase in income.

Currently, children from families at 150% above the federal poverty level enrolled in CHIP are required to verify that their allowable assets do not exceed $10,000. CSHB 2962 raises the check for allowable assets to families earning 250% of the federal poverty level, and raised allowable assets to $20,000. Additionally, it exempts the value of one car from being included in determining families’ assets for CHIP.

“A vehicle is a lifeline for families, and should not be considered an asset when determining health coverage,” said Rep. Coleman. “Families need to drive to get to work, to get food, and to take their children to school.”

CSHB 2962 also excludes child support payments and assets in college savings plans from being considered when determining eligibility for programs like CHIP and Medicaid.

“These changes will encourage families to invest in the future of their children’s education, without fear that their investment will cause them to lose their health care,” said Rep. Coleman.

This is an extension of HB109 from the 2007 Lege, which restored the one-year enrollment period but did not relax the assets restrictions. I believe this would still leave us short of the levels we had before the 2003 decimation, but it’s a big step forward and we’d be closer than ever if this passes. Let’s hope it keeps the momentum going forward.

Perry’s ongoing war on the unemployed

You have to say this about Governor Perry: He never goes off message, no matter how ridiculous that message may be.

Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday re-stated his opposition to legislation that would allow the state to accept federal stimulus dollars for expanded unemployment programs. A key part of Perry’s argument is that once Texas expands the pool of people who are eligible for unemployment benefits, there will be no changing the program back to its current guidelines. (While the federal stimulus law says that states cannot insert a sunset provision that would automatically end the expanded benefits at a certain point, state legislatures can choose to revert back to the previous parameters of their programs).

“I’ve never seen anything generally done away with once it becomes law so I wouldn’t think this one would be any different,” Perry told a gaggle of reporters after a speech Wednesday.

I asked Perry about 2003, when lawmakers famously cut a number of programs in order to cope with a $10 billion budget shortfall.

“Ronald Reagan said that there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government program,” Perry responded. “I think that is a very wise statement and I will stand by that. Cutting government programs that are put in place that are entitlements are almost impossible to change.”

I just want to point out that Perry’s legislative director, Ken Armbrister, said those exact words about “temporary government programs” two months ago in testimony about the unemployment insurance funds. Like I said, always on message.

Is it almost impossible to cut a government program?

In 2001, the Legislature created a $1,000 stipend for teachers to pay for health insurance. In 2003, the Legislature cut it back to $500. And in 2006, it was rolled into teachers’ salaries to help lawmakers and Perry inflate the size of a teacher pay raise.

Between 2003 and 2007, the Legislature cut the utility assistance program for low-income Texans from $150 million to $15 million.

The Legislature created the Children’s Health Insurance Program in Texas in 1997. In 2003, the Legislature cut vision, dental and mental health benefits, while increasing the frequency with which families had to enroll.

Lawmakers cut payments to doctors seeing Medicaid and CHIP patients in 2003.

You get the idea. And Perry said when announcing that he would not accept the stimulus dollars, “Texas overcame a $10 billion deficit in 2003 because we decided to reduce government spending,” Perry said in March.

Said House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam, “The governor didn’t have any difficulty repealing CHIP eligibility and throwing 250,000 children off of health insurance. Maybe he has amnesia.”

It’s not amnesia, it’s good old-fashioned dishonesty. Maybe the key is to make the UI changes permanent, since we don’t seem to have any problems discontinuing permanent government programs when the mood strikes us.

In addition to being dishonest about unemployment insurance and the stimulus money, Perry is also a hypocrite as the Statesman points out. Yes, I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

Perry uses taxpayer money — he asked for $260 million for the next two-year budget cycle — from the [Texas Enterprise Fund] to attract businesses to Texas. A principal measure of success is how many jobs a new employer creates.

What’s interesting here is that, as The Associated Press reported last week, companies that have received money from the fund are now allowed to count part-time workers in toting up the number of people they have hired.

But one of Perry’s objections to accepting the federal stimulus money for unemployment compensation is that it would allow part-time workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own to receive prorated unemployment insurance benefits. A typical example is a spouse who works part-time because of children, loses her job and needs unemployment benefits until she can find another job.

So, it’s fine by Perry to count part-time workers if it means helping an employer get public money, but if the employer lays off those part-timers in a recession, too bad for them. There are few better examples of the governor’s high regard for business interests and lack of interest in ordinary people.

Here’s a link to that AP story, which I missed when it came out. I really don’t think there’s anything that needs to be added to this.

Extending Medicaid

Texas likes to bill itself as a business-friendly state. But there’s one thing that a lot of businesses want that the Republican leadership has been unwilling to entertain, and that’s to make Medicaid renewals an annual event instead of every six months.

Arlington hospital executive Joel Ballew, speaking for the Healthcare Legislative Task Force of the Dallas Regional Chamber, said Texas needs to boost state funding of the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program to draw down the maximum amount of federal matching funds possible. The Dallas chamber and its counterparts in the state’s eight biggest urban areas said annual renewals for the 1.9 children on Medicaid would put more youngsters on the rolls, by reducing gaps in coverage caused by excessive red tape and the state eligibility system’s problems.

“How would y’all like to sign up for your health insurance twice a year?” Bruce LaBoon of the Greater Houston Partnership said at a news conference. “I doubt if you’d like it very much. And the paperwork of course for Medicaid is significant. The [processing] delays are significant. … In order to retain your eligibility in a children’s Medicaid program in this state, you pretty much have to start signing up as soon as your coverage is approved for the last time. It’s a continuous process of applying and applying and applying again.”

Hold that thought about the processing delays for a minute, I’ll get back to it.

In the past, some lawmakers have opposed what’s known as “12 months’ continuous eligibility” because they want families’ income checked more often than once a year. That way, they argued, those over the income ceilings wouldn’t get free care.

However, speakers at the news conference said semiannual renewals have gummed up an overtaxed eligibility-determination system. They said Texas takes as long as three months to process Medicaid applications and renewals. Even Louisiana does a better job, they said. Early in the decade, Texas made some progress in simplifying enrollment but it has backslid with a botched privatization of signups for social services, said advocates and five House Democrats who spoke at the press conference.

Makes your heart swell with pride to know that Louisiana does a better job than we do, doesn’t it? The “botched privatization effort” of course refers to the Accenture debacle, but the effect is aggravated by the TIERS implementation, whose expansion has been postponed once again because it couldn’t keep up with the demands on it, and also by the fact that demand for social services has increased sharply due to the lousy economy. Lengthening the eligibility period would go a long way towards alleviating many of these problems.

Ballew, director of government affairs and advocacy for Texas Health Resources, the amalgam of Dallas’ Presbyterian Healthcare Resources and Fort Worth’s Harris Methodist Health System, said “if current trends continue, access to health care will decline and costs to business will increase.”

The Dallas chamber wants the Legislature “to implement policies to enroll every eligible child in Medicaid or CHIP,” he said. That way, not only would Texas draw down all federal funds it’s entitled to, he said, but parents could be more productive workers because their youngsters would have regular checkups and receive preventive care.

Doing this would require that the state spend more money, which is a big part of the Republican reluctance to embrace this. But the added cost would bring an even larger return.

The largest chambers of commerce in Texas are pushing for 12-month Medicaid coverage, which is standard in the private sector. The Greater Houston Partnership also has thrown its “strong support” for 12-month coverage in an effort to reduce the number of uninsured children in Texas. A $500 million match by the state would generate an extra $800 million in federal funds and reduce the number of uninsured children by one-third.

“It is absolutely good social policy. It is absolutely good business policy as well,” said Bruce LaBoon, past chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership.

Texas gets back $1.47 from the federal government for every $1 it invests in the children’s Medicaid program.

“It is absolutely essential that we allow parents and children to sign up once a year, like we all do,” LaBoon said.

Yeah, we’ve had this same discussion with things like CHIP and more recently unemployment insurance. For whatever the reason, the “we get back a lot more than we spend” argument just doesn’t move too many members of the Lege (assuming they know what Medicaid is, of course), not to mention Rick Perry and David Dewhurst. At this point in the session, with so much to do and so little time to do it, I can’t say I have much hope for a different outcome this time around. Vaqueros and Wonkeros has more.

Presidential results by Congressional district

Swing State Project has compiled a list of Presidential results by Congressional district, for all 435 DCs around the country. I’ve pulled out the Texas numbers and put them in a Google spreadsheet for ease of viewing. Here are a few notable ones:

CD Incumbent Obama Kerry Gore =================================== 03 Johnson 42 33 30 07 Culberson 41 36 31 10 McCaul 44 38 34 21 Smith 41 34 31 22 Olson 41 36 33 24 Marchant 44 35 32 26 Burgess 42 35 38 31 Carter 42 33 32 32 Sessions 46 40 36

The numbers represent the percentage of the vote the Democratic Presidential nominee got in that district in that year. I believe this is a two-party comparison, so Nader votes were excluded; in other years, the third-party Presidential vote is small enough to not matter much. “Incumbent” refers to the 2008 officeholder.

(By the way, my assumption is that the 2000 results are derived from taking the data from the existing precincts for that year, regardless of which actual CD they were in at that time. That must be the case, because CDs 31 and 32 didn’t exist in 2000.)

You can also now see similar figures from the Cook Political Report, which just released its updated PVIs to reflect the 2008 Presidential cycle. What does this mean?

The Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index (PVI) Explained

In August of 1997, The Cook Political Report introduced the Partisan Voting Index (PVI) as a means of providing a more accurate picture of the competitiveness of each of the 435 congressional districts. Using the 1992 and 1996 major-party Presidential voting results, the PVI measured how each congressional district performed compared to the nation as a whole.

Using the results of the 2004 and 2008 elections, we have updated these PVI ratings and have even more information to draw upon to understand the congressional level trends and tilts that will help to define upcoming elections.

Developed for The Cook Political Report by Polidata, the index is an attempt to find an objective measurement of each congressional district that allows comparisons between states and districts, thereby making it relevant in both mid-term and presidential election years.

While other data such as the results of senatorial, gubernatorial, congressional and other local races can help fine tune the exact partisan tilt of a particular district, those kinds of results don’t allow a comparison of districts across state lines. Only Presidential results allow for total comparability.

A Partisan Voting Index score of D+2, for example, means that in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, that district performed an average of two points more Democratic than the nation did as a whole, while an R+4 means the district performed four points more Republican than the national average. If a district performed within half a point of the national average in either direction, we assign it a score of EVEN.

To determine the national average for these latest ratings, we have taken the average Democratic share of the two-party presidential vote for 2004 and 2008, which is roughly 51.3 percent, and that of Republicans, which is roughly 48.7 percent. So, if John Kerry captured 55 percent of the vote in a district and Barack Obama carried 57 percent in the district four years later, the district would have a PVI score of roughly D+5.

And here are the PVIs for the Texas districts:


House panel passes its budget

The House Appropriations Committee takes care of business.

House budget writers today backed a $178.4 billion, two-year state budget that would give a $1,000 bonus to state government employees [who make less than $100,000 a year], retired teachers and retired state employees.


It would give more to college grants than the Senate budget proposal approved last week. Unlike the Senate measure, it also would definitively provide for funding an expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program if separate legislation passes (the Senate would give a CHIP expansion a chance at funding).

At the same time, the House committee proposal is nearly $4 billion less than the $182.2 billion Senate measure.

Among key differences, the House measure gives about $2 billion less for road bonds and less for cancer bonds, said Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. It also has a far lower estimate for Medicaid costs and caseloads, making up the bulk of the difference.

The House bill also would put tighter strings on trust funds overseen by Gov. Rick Perry, who stirred Pitts’ ire when he engineered a $50 million transfer from the enterprise fund to the emerging technology fund for a Texas A&M University System biotecnology center.

As you know, I thought the Senate budget wasn’t too bad, certainly a lot better than I thought it would be coming into the session. From what I see here, the House budget improves on it, though I’m leery of the lower cost estimate for Medicaid. Still, more for CHIP and tighter controls on Governor Perry’s slush fund – what’s not to like about those things?

Floor Pass, which says the whole House will debate the budget bill on April 17, has more.

The House’s version includes $11 billion in federal stimulus funds. But wait! Wasn’t Texas supposed to get, like, $16 billion? Calm down there, pardner. Some of the stimulus funds flow directly from the feds for local appropriation and some of the stimulus funds have been appropriated to the 2008 – 09 biennium, as some of the money will already have been spent by the end of this year.

More details on the budget will be forthcoming soon. Is it possible that this won’t represent the biggest battle of the session? I’m not sure what that would say about this session if it turns out to be the case. Postcards has more.

UPDATE: BOR says the budget process is proceeding in at least as timely a manner as it did in 2007, but it could still get derailed.

Coleman pushing for CHIP restoration

Way back in those crazy, innocent days right after Joe Straus was elected Speaker, some of us had the silly idea that this might portend better legislation making it through the House. You know, serious policy stuff that actually benefits people, that sort of thing. Well, we’re still waiting for that to happen, but if it does, one place where a real difference can be made is with CHIP. Rep. Garnet Coleman is at the forefront of that, as he’s been for the past few sessions. From his office:

I will lay out legislation in the Health and Human Services Committee which will restore CHIP to its intended levels, and restore health coverage for hundreds of thousands of children in Texas. Representative Patrick Rose, Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, has also invited me to sit in the committee to hear testimony regarding the 25 CHIP and Medicaid bills which will be heard.

My legislation, HB 2962, will restore CHIP to pre-2003 levels by removing unnecessary barriers which stand in the way of Texas children. It will remove the assets test, allow deductions beyond those for child care, and make it easier to renew. HB 2962 will also eliminate in person interview requirements at renewal, and use joint applications and supplemental forms for Medicaid and CHIP. Additionally, it will keep the once-a-year applications, making it easier for both working families and an already overwhelmed system.

The fight to fully restore CHIP will continue until our state laws match federal guidelines to ensure every eligible child is enrolled in CHIP. HB 2962 takes full advantage of an opportunity from the federal government to expand state CHIP coverage to include children from families earning up to 300 percent above the federal poverty level. It also includes a buy in option, at no cost to the state, for children from families with a net income up to 400 percent above the federal poverty level.

Governor Perry has stated that he does not favor the increase in eligibility, and that we must focus on enrolling children currently eligible but not enrolled in the program. We can and must do both. My goal is to remove the bureaucratic hurdles that keep eligible children from receiving health care.

I’ll note again the disparate treatment given to families who need health insurance for their children and the bureaucratic gauntlet they have to run to prove they really need it, and to border law enforcement officials under Operation Border Star, where money is given out with no apparent requirement to demonstrate that it was put to good use. Funny how our government works, isn’t it?

Anyway, I feel pretty confident this will pass the House, or at least that something like this will pass the House. I’m less confident about the Senate, but it could happen. And if it does, I am totally confident that Governor Perry will veto it, because doing so will play well with the five percent or so of Texas’ population that he cares about, that being the GOP primary electorate. Maybe in 2011, with a different Governor, we can make this happen. Until then, we have to keep pushing for it.

Son of Speaker complaining

So yes, even in the post-Craddick era, there are still complaints about the Speaker by Democrats. Some of this is to be expected: You can’t satisfy everyone. Some of it is probably the result of over-inflated expectations. And some of it is perfectly legitimate concerns about the makeup of the committees and who did or did not get good assignments.

I continue to believe that what we’ve got now is better than we had before, and better than we would have gotten from another term of Tom Craddick. I think Burka has a point in that the extremists who ruled committees under Craddick were largely shunted aside, and that the Dems mostly got their wish to be able to pass their bills and help their districts. Obviously, there is much to be played out, and we don’t really know yet if they’ll get a fair shake in the calendar and in rulings on points of order and whatnot. That’s where the rubber will really hit the road, and in the end I do think more real work will get done. At least, I think the potential is there for that. Of course, it’s quite possible for things to be better than they were under Craddick, and still not very good. When there’s that much room for improvement, there needs to be much improvement for it to be worthwhile. We won’t know about that till much later.

Process is only part of the equation, too. Will the emphasis this session be on the real work that needs to be done, on things like higher education and rebuilding Galveston and windstorm insurance and restoring CHIP and so on and so forth, or will Speaker Straus follow Craddick’s path of elevating divisive partisan issues over substance, and get things bogged down in the distractions of voter ID and abortion politics? Will we have an honest debate over the budget, or will Straus play games like Craddick and Warren Chisum did when they separated property tax cuts from everything else? Will members be free to vote their districts, or will they be pressured to do what the Speaker wants? It’s totally up to him, and when he has to make those decisions I hope he remembers how he got to be where he is now. More importantly, he might think about how Craddick got to be where he is now, too.

So how’s the state of our state?

Well, you can read the text of Governor Rick Perry’s State of the State speech and see for yourself what it was all about. Frankly, I think Matt got it in one: This was a campaign speech. I mean, stem cells? Ultrasounds? That he spoke about voter ID is no surprise, though how he framed it was a bit odd. Immigration, too, on which there was more muddled thinking. Point being, who other than a Republican primary voter thinks these are the top issues in Texas today? It was small ball, intended for a small audience. You’d have to ask them if the speech was effective, because it wasn’t addressed to me, or to most of the people (I presume) who are reading this.

For responses to the Governor’s speech, and a good sampling of what he should have talked about but didn’t, here are responses from freshman State Reps. Joe Moody and Chris Turner, and State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. Click on beneath the fold for press releases from State Reps. Trey Martinez-Fischer and Garnet Coleman. And here, much shorter than Perry’s speech, is a YouTube response from Rep. Coleman.


It’s 2009 and we’re still arguing about CHIP

It’s hard for me to believe that after all this time, and after all of the candidates who’ve lost elections over it, that the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a/k/a CHIP, still has dedicated opponents. It’s especially hard for me to believe that in this time of budget crunch, anyone would want to turn down the very generous federal matching funds that come with an expansion of CHIP, which by the way still isn’t at the level it was in 2003 when it was so drastically cut back. Yet here we are.

The debate over children’s health care this year will be as arduous as ever, but so is the ante: More than 160,000 Texas children whose cash-strapped parents can’t get state help to pay medical expenses for maladies as common as chronic ear infections or as daunting as cancer treatment.

The argument among legislators will be whether to raise income-eligibility levels so that those children can join the 451,000 now covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Supporters say reducing the number of uninsured youngsters — now one in five — would benefit not only the children’s physical health but the fiscal health of Texas taxpayers. The federal government picks up 72 percent of the cost and providing health care in doctors’ offices is almost always cheaper than treating children in public hospital emergency rooms.

Critics worry about undermining employer-sponsored health coverage and point to the growing costs for the state. CHIP enrollment increases over the past two years have driven the state’s tab from $102 million to $267.5 million.

Putting that increase in context, that $165.5 million increase in state funding for CHIP represents 0.2% of the state revenue total. It also surely represents a far smaller total than what counties and hospital districts would have paid for emergency room visits by otherwise-uninsured children. Honestly, I want to understand the argument against this, but I just can’t.

Well, there is this:

A pending federal bill that renews CHIP is expected to allow Texas to increase income limits so more can enroll. The current limit for a mother and two children of $35,200 could be increased to $52,800.
Sliding-scale proposal

State health and human services officials estimate the income expansion could draw 164,000 additional children to the program by 2012 at an annual cost to the state of about $100 million.

Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, said the price tag could be lowered if the middle-income families were charged premiums on a sliding scale. Cohen this week plans to introduce a bill that would expand CHIP and take advantage of the anticipated new federal funds.

“Since 2003, Texas has turned away almost $1 billion of federal matching funds by failing to invest in CHIP,” Cohen said. “As a result, we are left with the highest uninsured population of children in the nation.”

Cohen said getting the bill passed won’t be easy in a tight budget year when competing needs include Hurricane Ike recovery, public education and transportation.

Gov. Rick Perry’s spokeswoman, Allison Castle, said the governor does not support expanding CHIP’s eligibility standards because of the higher income families who would be covered. She said Congress is trying to lure the state into expanding programs in tough times and doing so would put the state on a “slippery slope to socialized medicine.”

Yes, I suppose I should have added the Slippery Slope To Solicalism! to my list of campaign issues for the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary. You can be sure that whichever way Kay Bailey Hutchison eventually votes on the S-CHIP bill that’s still pending in the Senate, she’ll get bashed for it by Rick Perry. Because we can’t have those looming specters in this state, nosiree.

In the current economy, where pay is being frozen for many workers, an automatic 3 percent raise should have been a blessing for Josh Hebert of Pasadena.

But he wants to turn back part of the hike because it bumped him over the CHIP limit.

The younger of Hebert’s two daughters, 3-year-old Katie, suffers from brain lesions that have triggered deafness in one ear, digestive problems and a host of other symptoms. His employer plan would cost 30 percent of the family’s monthly income and does not offer the type of comprehensive coverage that Katie gets through CHIP.

“It seems unbelievable that a cost-of-living raise can become a major crisis, but it is when our children’s health hangs in the balance,” said his wife, Kyla.

Yes, well, don’t you understand that the Slippery Slope To Socialized Medicine is more important than your daughter’s health? I’m sure Governor Perry and his supporters who care so much about the sanctity of life would be happy to explain it to you.

UPDATE: Rep. Ellen Cohen has filed HB787 to increase CHIP participation. The changes to the text of the statutes is simple:

[A] child who is younger than 19 years of age and whose net family income is at or below 300 [200] percent of the federal poverty level is eligible for health benefits coverage under the program.


During the sixth month following the date of initial enrollment or reenrollment of an individual whose net family income exceeds 285 [185] percent of the federal poverty level, the commission shall:

(1) review the individual’s net family income and may use electronic technology if available and appropriate; and

(2) continue to provide coverage if the individual’s net family income does not exceed the income eligibility limits prescribed by this chapter.

A press release from Rep. Cohen’s office is beneath the fold.