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Texas House Plods Through Debate On Lean Budget

By APRIL CASTRO and JAY ROOT Associated Press
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AUSTIN (AP) – The Texas House plodded through a marathon debate Friday, stopping after 15 hours of discussion about staggering cuts to the state budget, including the first reduction in overall public education funding in decades.

The House broke after discussing health and human services and education but planned to come back Sunday to finish discussion of prisons, highways, courts and a myriad of other state agencies, all facing stiff cuts.

The proposal is $23 billion less than the amount spent in state and federal funds in the existing two-year budget. With almost 400 amendments to slog through, the debate on the 2012-2013 budget is expected to last well into the weekend before a vote is taken.

The House plan underfunds Medicaid, which provides health care to the poor and disabled, by more than $4 billion. Some parents brought their severely disabled children in wheelchairs to line up outside the chamber before the debate began.

“Why are you voting to hurt me?” read a placard sitting in the lap of 9-year-old Charles Miller, who was born with hydranencephaly, meaning most of his brain tissue is missing. His parents are fighting steep reductions in reimbursements for home-based health care.

Public education, representing more than half the state budget outlays, faces historic cutbacks. The plan on the House floor Friday would reduce full-day pre-kindergarten, teacher incentive pay, college financial aid and numerous education programs. Dan Casey, co-author of “The Basics of Texas Public School Finance,” said it’s the first time since the current school finance structure was put in place in 1949 that public schools would get less than called for under state funding laws from one budget to the next.

Rep. Larry Taylor, leader of the House Republicans, says the proper comparison stretches back to the Great Depression. He said before the debate began Friday morning that the Legislature was on the verge of enacting the first reduction in public education funding since 1929. But GOP leaders, in firm control of the Legislature, are vowing to balance the budget without raising new taxes.

“This is the hand that we’ve been dealt,” Taylor said. “If we don’t have the money, we don’t have the money.”

Taylor said legislators “don’t have the luxury to pander to every constituency” and pointed to reforms that could soften the blow to school districts before the session ends in May.

Rep. Jessica Farrar, leader of the House Democrats, said the GOP created the financial mess and has the supermajority to get Texas out of it. She said the Legislature should take more money out of the reserve Rainy Day Fund and close tax loopholes to raise more money.

“They have to stop the politics and begin to govern,” Farrar said.

The proposal cuts Medicaid reimbursement rates by 10 percent. That’s on top of a 3 percent rate reduction state leaders requested this year. The federal-state Medicaid health care program serves 3.1 million Texans — mostly children, pregnant women and adults with disabilities.

For nursing homes, the cuts could come closer to 33 percent because of recent changes in the federal-state funding formula. The state’s share has increased, but budget proposals are not paying for that increase. Experts say that could jeopardize 45,000 residents in the state’s 550 nursing homes that depend on Medicaid.

The Department of Aging and Disability Services would be directed to develop a contingency plan for displaced disabled and elderly residents, under an amendment adopted without objection Friday.

Republicans also redirected more than $60 million from family planning services for needy Texans to other programs, including to services that encourage alternatives to abortion.

“You’re moving it into a strategy that has nothing to do with prevention,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal, a Democrat from San Antonio. “It’s about counseling women who are already pregnant. Isn’t that counterproductive?”

Democrats warned that the move would cost the state more in lost federal funding, more unplanned pregnancies and higher Medicaid caseloads.

About six Republican-backed amendments cut funding to the family planning program from $99 million to about $38 million.

Money also was moved to programs for children with autism, early childhood care and mid-size homes for the deaf, blind and disabled.

The effort outraged Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

“I will not be put in the position of choosing from one need to another when we are underfunding them both,” Turner said. “If we were not willing to pull from the Rainy Day (fund) to meet the needs of these children and elderly folks, I will not be caught trying to decide if I should fund child one or child two.”

He and several Democrats began voting “present not voting” on the reshuffling efforts.

The divisions were much less partisan when the debate turned to education.

Several efforts to gut funding to a program that offers schooling to prisoners were rejected, as were attempts to strip funding to the Texas Education Agency, which critics said had become a “bloated bureaucracy.”

“I think TEA is out of touch,” said Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat. “I believe if TEA went away tomorrow nobody would notice.”

Others unsuccessfully attempted to put more money into school funding.

The plan does reinstate funding to four community colleges that had been set to have their funding cut off. Those cuts would instead be evenly distributed among all community colleges in Texas.

The Senate is working on its own version of the budget and plans to spend billions more on education. That sets up a budgetary battle that will likely stretch into the final days of the biennial legislative session — or force a special session this summer.

Rep. Jim Pitts, the Waxahachie Republican who sponsored the budget legislation, said the sweeping cuts in the House plan underscore the “economic realities facing our state.”

“This budget does not raise taxes, it does not rely on any spending, any new tax revenue, to pay for programs or services,” Pitts said. “This budget does not grow government.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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