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An awful lot of Texans could lose health insurance

It sure will suck to be them.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

New public-health studies warn that hasty congressional action toward repealing the Affordable Care Act could have dire consequences for the poor and uninsured both in Texas and nationwide.

The dismantlement of portions of the law, known as Obamacare, without a comparable substitute could mean 2.6 million more Texans would be uninsured, raising the total to 6.9 million by 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank for economic and social policy, said Wednesday in a new report.

Texas already leads the nation in the number of uninsured.

“There is good deal of fear,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy, who has tracked the health care law’s implementation in Texas. “The uninsured rate will be going up under any scenario.”

The fallout from even a partial congressional repeal through a process known as budget reconciliation could also nearly double the national uninsured rate to 21 percent by 2019, the report found. That would be higher than the rate before the ACA went into effect.

[…]

“The rush for repeal, certainly without replacement, is a huge risk for the health and financial stability for Texas. Not just for the poor but for everyone,” said Stacey Pogue, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

“We don’t just go back to the uninsured rate before the Affordable Care Act,” she said, “the entire individual market becomes destabilized.”

There are two things you can be sure of. One is that any replacement scheme will cover fewer people than are covered now. That’s because Republicans want to cut taxes, and if that means a bunch of people lose access to health care, well, too bad for them. And two, our state government does not care at all about the uninsured population. They’ve had fifteen years to do something about it, and the only thing they have ever done is make cutbacks. If this is what you voted for, then congratulations, you’re gonna get it.

What kind of ruling might we expect in the school finance case?

KUHF explores the possibilities.

BagOfMoney

Four major scenarios to watch for:

  1. The Texas Supreme Court could not rule at all. Instead, it could send the case back to the lower court to see if the latest $2.5 billion dollars to the education budget solves the problem. “And the court could say, you know, we need more fact-finding to determine what the actual impact of those changes were, this case isn’t’ ripe,” said [Marisa] Bono, southwest regional counsel of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “We think that the likelihood of that is pretty small. But it’s a possibility.”
  2. The justices could make a major sweeping decision in favor of school districts. “And that would require the Legislature to come up with some way of either putting significantly more money in the system, or requiring local taxes to go up, or state taxes to go up or to require wealthy districts to share even more of their wealth with the poorer districts,” explained Al Kauffman, a veteran school finance attorney and also a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.
  3. Or the court could rule the opposite. That would be a win for the state, if the court overturns the trial judge’s entire decision that declared the school finance system unconstitutional. “I guess that’s an option that I don’t like to think about,” said Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Austin. “But they can just completely dismiss the case and say it has no standing. But I feel that this is such a strong case that it would be really surprising if they threw out everything.”
  4. In fact, it’s the largest school finance case to ever reach the Texas Supreme Court. It involves the most school districts, the most data and the most legal arguments. That brings the law scenario, which is a combination or piecemeal ruling. The justices could uphold one part of the case and overturn another. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said that’s what he expects. “We can use a good review from the Supreme Court to hit a generational reset button and take all of this into account in the next legislative session,” he said.

Depending on when it arrives, the ruling could force a special summer session or lawmakers could hash out school finance in the next regular session in 2017.

And when will the ruling come?

It could be any day. But Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said definitely by the end of June.

Obviously, scenario 2 is what I’m rooting for. District Court Judge John Dietz already took into consideration the money that was put back into the system in 2013, so I don’t know what purpose option 1 serves. Surely no further evidence is needed to show the inequity between districts. Option 3 is too gruesome to contemplate, while Option 4 is a big “it depends”. I will be disappointed with anything but #2, but the others are all possible to some extent.

More pre-K bills filed

The Observer has the best reporting on the latest pre-k bills that have been filed in the Lege.

pre-k

There’s widespread support around the Capitol for more state spending on pre-kindergarten programs, and much less agreement about how to do it.

State Reps. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) have proposed a $300-million-a-year plan to fund full-day pre-K for some children in districts that agree to meet new quality standards. Meanwhile, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a more ambitious plan: universal, full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Greg Abbott also proposed more pre-K spending, but more cautiously. Rather than a blanket pre-K expansion, Abbott suggested rewarding districts with $1,500 per student if they meet new standards for program quality.

That’s the plan outlined in House Bill 4, filed [Thursday] by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). The bill creates a framework for defining the “high quality prekindergarten programs” eligible for extra state funding, but remains vague on how much each school district would get and how their programs would be evaluated. Under HB 4, those decisions would all be left up to the education commissioner.

[…]

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, says HB 4 includes some important elements—encouraging districts to use the state pre-K standards, and rewarding districts for using qualified teachers—but the bill is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t fund full-day learning.

Our research shows students achieve the greatest gains when enrolled in high-quality, full-day pre-K,” Anthony says, with an emphasis on “full-day.” “We have seen first-hand in the research and talking with teachers that they can accomplish so much more in a full-day program than with the half-day.”

See here for more on Raise Your Hand Texas’s research, and here for more on the Johnson/Farney bill. The Zaffirini bill is basically what Wendy Davis proposed, so you can guess what its likely outcome will be. The main problem with Abbott’s approach of course is that the $100 million appropriated in Rep. Huberty’s bill is still less than what was cut in 2011. The Chron story doesn’t mention any of this, though it does give a nice report on that public announcement event Abbott held, since that’s what really matters.

There are more reasons to prefer the full-day pre-k options that Johnson/Farney and Zaffirini are proposing:

“Right now it looks like the governor’s proposal [as written in HB 4] is basically recreating a similar grant program,” [Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva] says. “This program just isn’t going far enough and meeting the needs that we really have.”

Villanueva, like many other early education advocates, says the Legislature should fund any pre-K expansion through the same funding formulas it uses to pay for K-12 education. Grant programs like the one cut in 2011, or the one proposed under HB 4, are much more susceptible to cuts from one session to the next.

Funding pre-K through the formulas, she says, would also help ensure students get more equal funding. HB 4, on the other hand, could reward wealthy districts that already have the money to meet new requirements for, say, class size or teacher qualifications.

“The governor’s bill that’s outside the formulas, it’s really increasing inequity in the system,” Villanueva says. “I think we need a systemic approach to dealing with pre-K, and increase the equity in the system.”

You know what that sounds like to me? A future school finance lawsuit. Good to know some things never change, isn’t it?

What’s the Lege going to do with the revenue?

Not as much as it should, of course, because the Lege never comes close to doing as much as it should. It’s a question of whether they’ll try to address some real problems, or just engage in an orgy of tax cutting.

BagOfMoney

Texans can expect tax relief, a laser focus on border security and more efforts to fight traffic congestion when a cash-flush Legislature convenes in January.

The budget priorities line up with campaign promises from Republican state leaders and lawmakers, who handily won their spots with a message of keeping state government lean while carefully weighing any additional spending for its benefits.

At least some outnumbered Democrats also appear to be on the tax-relief bandwagon, as the state welcomes the prospect of having $5 billion or more in greater-than-expected revenue when the current two-year budget period ends. Anticipated economic growth is expected to yield billions more, with the caveat that uncertain oil prices must temper expectations.

The tax-relief issue “crosses party lines,” said Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “Property taxes are really something that people would like to address.”

Besides property-tax relief – pushed by Sen. Dan Patrick, the incoming lieutenant governor – the potential for cutting the state’s business tax has been highlighted by Attorney General Greg Abbott, the governor-elect.

The devil, as always, is in the details of a state budget that totals $200 billion in the current two-year fiscal period, including state and federal funds that are largely spoken for before lawmakers convene. Education and health and human services alone take up nearly three-quarters of the total.

“I fully expect there to be some tax relief. The question is, what’s the nature of it?” said Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

[…]

What’s clear is that despite the billions of greater-than-predicted dollars awaiting lawmakers’ allocation, the list of programs that can use more money is far longer than the dollars can cover, especially in light of a spending cap on certain general revenue.

“It’s sort of easy when there’s not a lot of money. You just say we haven’t got the money,” said Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. “Whereas now, I call it kind of a food fight. You’ve got a lot of food on the table, and people are going to start grabbing for it and trying to make sure they get their programs funded at a level that they want.”

Simply keeping current levels of services to a growing population would cost an additional $6 billion to $7 billion in state general revenue, said Eva De Luna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which focuses on services important to middle- and lower-income Texans. That’s without addressing the lingering cuts from 2011.

“All we’re hearing about is tax cuts. Nobody is talking about, ‘What did we cut out of the budget in 2011?’ ” she said. “I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that our future economy and prosperity are at stake. We need good roads but we also need good schools and universities.”

If you think that last bit is just the usual liberal happy talk, you should see what the Texas Association of Business’ wish list for the legislative session looks like. They expect to spend the next six to eight months fighting against the people they just supported for election on these issues, because that’s how they roll. “Border security” is a huge boondoggle for which all indicators are always that we should keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is to say to spend more and more and more on it. And no, the feds aren’t going to cover that check no matter how nicely Greg Abbott asks the President for it. As for property tax “relief”, the proposals put forth by Sen. Kirk Watson and others to increase the homestead exemption would be the most equitable way of doing this, which means it is also the least likely way of it happening. But I suppose anything is still possible before the session begins, just like the possibility than your favorite NFL team can go 16-0 while training camp is still going on. We’ll see what happens when the games start getting played for real.

734K ACA enrollments in Texas

Pretty damn impressive, all things considered.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

New numbers out show that 734,000 Texans bought health insurance through the federal marketplace from last October to April 19, 2014, a report released by Health and Human Services shows.

Prior to March 1, an anemic 295,000 people had signed up, but in the final stretch of the Affordable Care Act first-year sign-up, another 439,000 obtained private insurance through the exchange.

Health care advocates applauded the new sign-up numbers and said the results are impressive, especially in the face of strong opposition from virtually every state Republican leader.

Texas has made more progress on affordable health insurance in the last six months than in the last decade,” said Stacey Pogue, a health care analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities.

“We know that Texas could do much more,” she said. “Too many Texans are still one illness or one accident away from going bankrupt.”

Emphasis mine. Keep that in mind the next time you hear a Republican dead-ender talk about how horrible Obamacare is. After more than a decade in complete control of Texas government, they’ve not done a damn thing to try to solve this problem. Hell, in that time they’ve never even recognized it as a problem. Then the federal government – President Obama and the Democrats in Congress – stepped in and finally did something about it, and the Republican leadership in Texas resents it like crazy, because it so clearly points out their abject failure. The final enrollment surge, generated purely by tons of need for health insurance coverage, since the state did everything it could to impede signups, was impressive enough that even the TPPF’s designated hack had to admit is was remarkable. Just imagine what could have been if only Rick Perry and Greg Abbott and the rest of them gave a damn.

Some details from Texas Well and Healthy:

BACKGROUND ON HEALTH CARE COVERAGE NUMBERS

  • Eight-four percent of Texans who signed up also received financial assistance, lowering their monthly costs.
  • Thirty percent of Texans who selected insurance plans through the Marketplace were 18-34 years old.
  • Approximately six million Texans were uninsured in 2012. With 25 percent of the state uninsured, Texas has the worst rate in the nation.
  • About half of the state’s one million uninsured children and teens are eligible for Medicaid or CHIP.
  • More than one million Texas adults are in the Coverage Gap. Their jobs do not provide insurance, but their income is not high enough to qualify for assistance in the Marketplace. The Texas legislature can provide insurance to Texans in the Coverage Gap by accepting federal health care funds.

The overall numbers are right in line with that Baker Institute study that had pegged the figure at 746K. You can see how Texas compared to other states in the updated Kaiser numbers.

More from the Chron:

For weeks, officials have said an estimated 8 million people nationwide signed up for coverage. Until Thursday, it was unclear that a little more than 9 percent of enrollees were Texans. Before the marketplace’s Oct. 1 launch, government officials projected about 625,000 Texans would sign up for coverage.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Vivian Ho, James A. Baker III Institute health economics chair at Rice University. “I thought that anyone who wanted insurance would have signed up by Dec. 31.”

Although the state surpassed enrollment expectations, Ho said millions of Texans remain uninsured. About half of Texas’ estimated 6 million uninsured residents could have applied for marketplace coverage created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

“We’ve only made a slight dent in the number of uninsured in Texas,” Ho said. “We need more resources down here.”

No one from the offices of U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz or Gov. Rick Perry responded to requests for comment about the number of Texas enrollments. All three lawmakers oppose the health care law commonly known as Obamacare, and Cruz repeatedly has pushed for its repeal.

No comment from any of them? Not even a smart-aleck remark? Wimps.

Thursday’s report did not include Houston-area enrollment information. In April, the Associated Press reported more than 177,000 Houston residents signed up for health coverage, exceeding expectations and indicating a last-minute enrollment push just before the March 31 deadline might have helped Texas.

Texas Hospital Association officials said they were encouraged by the enrollment update but agreed with Ho that the state needs to do more to help its remaining uninsured residents. Texas has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents.

Perry has refused to expand Medicaid, which would extend health coverage to more than 1 million residents who earn too much to qualify for the program and too little to afford private health insurance.

“Our federal income tax dollars are going to other states because the state’s leadership said no to connecting low-wage working families with health insurance options,” hospital association president and CEO Ted Shaw said in a written statement. “Other states have proposed innovative private-market solutions to expand coverage using available federal funding, and Texas should follow their lead.”

Maybe next year, if we have a better Governor, we can exceed this year’s totals. A statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman is here, and Progress Texas and Stace have more.

What’s the health insurance enrollment status in Texas?

The short answer is that we don’t know. The longer answer, as this Express-News story indicates, is that we’ll never really know.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Self-sufficiency. Distrust. Desire for flexibility.

Those are some reasons many consumers bypassed health insurance plans sold on government-run exchanges and instead chose to buy coverage directly from insurance agents or brokers before open enrollment ended March 31.

No one is sure exactly how many people did this. There is no singular source that aggregates nationwide health insurance enrollment numbers outside the exchanges. But these consumers will push the total number of enrollments for 2014 health coverage beyond the 7.1 million Americans who went through the federal- and state-operated exchanges.

In Texas, “it could be a big number,” said Stacey Pogue, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “It could be more people than enrolled in the marketplace in Texas. But we don’t know. It certainly will be a significant number of people.”

The state Department of Insurance doesn’t collect enrollment figures.

Those who did not go through the exchange weren’t able to apply for tax credits or subsidies to reduce their premiums. That’s because tax credits can only be obtained through government-run markets.

There are a number of reasons why some consumers went a different route, independent agents and brokers say. Some made too much money to qualify for tax credits. Some didn’t believe in accepting subsidies. Others feared giving personal information, such as Social Security numbers, to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

“Frankly, I have talked to a number of consumers who are concerned about what they feel is an invasion of privacy,” said Carla Adams, president-elect of the San Antonio Association of Health Underwriters and an independent agent. “All of the information that they have to provide once you go on to the exchange … that makes some consumers nervous.”

[…]

Some consumers bypassed the exchange because they wanted the flexibility to choose doctors or hospitals they preferred instead of being limited to a smaller network, several agents said.

For instance, some shoppers who selected certain types of plans on the exchange after verifying their doctor was part of the network learned two weeks later that the doctor was no longer accepting patients with that form of coverage. Loretta Camp, co-owner of Davidson Camp Insurance Services in San Antonio and an independent agent, said her agency intervened in such cases so patients could stay with their doctors.

Local agents also helped consumers going through the federal exchange who wanted professional help to select the most cost-effective plans.

There is no extra cost for consumers who use agents’ or brokers’ services, several experts in the insurance field said. Insurance carriers pay agents’ commissions.

“The reality is, what I’m experiencing with consumers, they’re confused when they try to get on the exchange themselves,” Adams said. “They have no idea what the true differences are between these plans or how to compare, and they’re overwhelmed. Someone like an agent who understands the inner workings of these plans can help them navigate through the differences.”

The state of Texas, of course, tried to make it as hard as possible for non-profits and charitable organizations to provide navigator services, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. We don’t know how many Texans got coverage through the federal healthcare.gov exchange yet. The most recent numbers were 295,025 enrollments as of March 1 – see here for the breakdown – but I haven’t seen anything more up to date than that. The main thing to keep in mind is that whatever the final figure for Texans enrolling via healthcare.gov is, the real number – the number of people who got coverage is higher, perhaps much higher. It would be nice to know how much higher, but that number isn’t available. We’ll have to rely on polling data for that. Here’s hoping we get that soon for Texas.

The coverage gap

As you may know, the intent of the Affordable Care Act was to get people below a certain income level onto Medicaid, with people at or above that income level receiving subsidized health insurance via the exchanges. Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Medicaid expansion mandate was unconstitutional, it meant that in states that refused to expand Medicaid people who fell below that income level but above the income level for Medicaid eligibility as things were would be left out of coverage – too poor to receive insurance subsidies, not poor enough for Medicaid. More than one million Texas adults fall into that coverage gap. Here’s a story about one of them.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Damaged discs in Irma Aguilar’s neck make it hard to raise her arms, something she must do repeatedly when stacking boxes at the pizza restaurant where she earns $9 an hour as an assistant manager.

Sometimes, her untreated high blood pressure makes her so dizzy she has to grab onto something to prevent a fall.

And she struggles with anxiety, a heart-pounding fear that can strike at any time, but especially at night, when she lies in bed and wonders how she’s going to make ends meet.

Without insurance, she worries about how she will find the money to treat her health problems, which threaten her livelihood and the well-being of her family.

[…]

Aguilar’s four children are covered by Medicaid, which provides free or reduced-cost health care. But Aguilar makes too much money – $19,200 a year – to qualify. Texas’ Medicaid eligibility requirements are among the tightest in the nation, and Aguilar has to be nearly destitute to meet them – making no more than $4,200 a year as head of a family of five.

Emphasis mine. What that means is that if you make more than two dollars an hour working fulltime, you make too much money as the head of a family of five to qualify for Medicaid in Texas. Think about that for a minute.

Still left out of Medicaid, Aguilar hoped to get insurance under the ACA, but to qualify for a tax credit to help her pay for it, she would need to earn more than she does – at least $27,570 a year. Only those earning between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level are eligible for the subsidies. Aguilar is at 70 percent.

This puts her in the gap, with neither Medicaid nor affordable health insurance.

If she could get a subsidy, Aguilar would have shelled out about $46 a month for a midlevel health plan. Without one, the cost would have zoomed to more than $200 a month, a price that puts health insurance out of her reach.

“I have to scrape by as it is,” Aguilar said. “By the time I pay rent, lights and water, there’s not much left over. Sometimes, I don’t eat so my kids can eat.”

[…]

As Texas rejected the extra Medicaid money, state lawmakers committed more resources to health care in the past session, said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The Legislature set aside $100 million in added money for primary care services for women and an additional $332 million for mental health services, she wrote in an email.

“We’ve also developed a strong network of health centers across the state that provides low-income citizens with access to both preventive care and treatment for medical issues,” she said.

Such clinics depend on a mix of revenue – Medicaid, private insurance and patient fees – to enable them to provide care to those who lack insurance.

But those front-line providers don’t have enough money and resources to care for all the uninsured, including those in the coverage gap, said José Camacho, head of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers.

Nor can health centers provide a broad range of services, making them a too-porous safety net, others say.

“They’re no substitute for not having coverage,” said Anne Dunkelberg, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans. “They can’t provide specialty treatment or trauma care. If you’ve been hurt in a car wreck or have a broken bone or cancer, if you need a CT scan, you’re going to be out of luck. Health centers are wonderful for primary care, but they’re not a substitute for comprehensive care.”

Ms. Aguilar has chronic conditions, as noted above, so these health centers likely wouldn’t be of much good to her anyway, assuming she could afford their fees. Even if she could, she wouldn’t be able to afford any medications they might prescribe. So she’s pretty much SOL. I personally think that Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Ted Cruz, and everyone else responsible for Texas’ horrible lack of health insurance for so many of its residents should be made to personally explain to Ms. Aguilar and her kids why they don’t want her to be able to get health care. Not that I think it would have any effect on them, but maybe if they had to explain it to all one million plus Texans that they have excluded from coverage it might eventually wear them down.

I do know one way that Ms. Aguilar and the million others like her could get helped, and that’s by electing Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte this November. No guarantee that they’d be able to overcome legislative resistance, of course, but there was some sentiment for expansion in 2011, and at least they wouldn’t be adding to that resistance. And if the Lege still can’t stand the idea of expanding Medicaid, there’s another way they could help Ms. Aguilar and many others like her: Raise the minimum wage. If Ms. Aguilar earned a bit more than $13 an hour, then her fulltime salary would make it to that magic $27,500 level – which is to say, exactly at the federally defined poverty line – and she’d qualify for insurance subsidies on the exchange. Either way would be fine by me.

What we missed by not getting a payday lending bill

Better Texas Blog reminds us of what could have been

SB 1247, the omnibus reform bill filed by Sen. John Carona … included the ability to repay standards, loan limits, and refinance limitations, among numerous other provisions. According to the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner (OCCC), the refinance limitations alone in SB 1247 would have produced annual savings more than $130 million for more than 300,000 Texas consumers.

Unlike other consumer loan products offered in Texas, the Finance Code contains no payday loan regulation relating to loan fees or effective annual interest rates, loan amounts, maximum number of refinances per loan, loan terms[i], ability to repay or underwriting and type of product. At least for payday loans, the absence of any statewide regulation or consumer protection makes Texas an outlier compared to nearly every state that permits or authorizes payday lending. Only five other states do not cap the amount of fees payday lenders can charge (Delaware, Idaho, Nevada, Ohio and South Dakota).[ii] Even among these states however, Delaware and Nevada have limits on loan terms and all five states limit loan amounts. [iii]

recent analysis of payday lending conducted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which covers a majority of the U.S. storefront payday loan transactions over a 12-month period, found that 68 percent of payday loan consumers had annual incomes at or below $30,000, and 43 percent had annual incomes at or below $20,000. The median annual income of payday loan consumers was about $22,500; for borrowers making under $20,000, the most common income sources were “public assistance/benefits” and “retirement”.

The CFPB analysis also found that the average payday loan amount nationwide was $392 in 2012. Nationwide data on payday lending appear to be much better than comparable data from unregulated Texas payday lenders, which reveal that Texas borrowers pay much higher fees and loan amounts. Based on 2012 data from OCCC, the average single payment payday loan in Texas was $472.

SB 1247 also included limits on refinances for each loan product, generating a pathway out of debt for consumers who get into trouble with payday or auto title loans. For 2012, single payment payday loans alone comprised about 75 percent of all payday loans, while single payment auto title loans accounted for 83% of all auto title loans.[iv] The original loan amounts of single payment payday loans surpassed $1 billion, while loan refinancing nearly hit $2.1 billion. Over 70 percent of single payment payday loan consumers that refinanced their loan did so multiple times. As shown by the CFPB report, repeat borrowing and renewals represent the lion’s share of all loan volume.   On-time repayment is the exception, with three refinances for every loan paid in full on the original due date.

The good news and the bad news is that city ordinances are still in effect. It’s good news because we almost got an bill that did little more than nullify the city ordinances, and it’s bad because city ordinances only cover a portion of the state. Given what Mayor Parker has said, we will likely be able to add Houston to the list of cities that offer this protection. But until we have a real statewide law, it only means so much.

If Medicaid is broken, who broke it?

Patricia Kilday Hart asks an excellent question.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

[Rep. Garnet] Coleman’s observation provides part of the answer: Just last session, the Legislature trimmed $486 million in state money paid to Medicaid providers, and ended a student loan-forgiveness program for new doctors exclusively serving Medicaid patients.

The federal government, which has established some rules that restrict the state’s ability to rein in costs, also bears some responsibility.

For example, the federal government will not allow states to charge even small co-pays, which could discourage overuse of services.

In 2009, the Texas Medicaid program paid $467 million for almost 2.5 million emergency room visits – but half of those visits were not emergencies, according to Stephanie Goodman, communications director for the Health and Human Services Commission.

“Private insurance plans typically charge a higher co-pay for an emergency room visit than for going to a doctor’s office because they want to create an incentive to choose the right level of care for the situation,” she said. “Medicaid should do the same.”

[…]

Medicaid has kept its costs down better than other sectors of the health care system. On a per-beneficiary basis, the program’s costs grew only 4.6 percent between 2000 and 2009, compared with a 5.1 percent increase in Medicare and a 7.2 percent increase in costs for patients covered by private insurance, according to the national Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on policies affecting low-income families.

“Medicaid is the victim of Swift-boating,” said Anne Dunkelberg, analyst for the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, referring to the political ad campaign that torpedoed Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. “It is the power of the talking point that is repeated so often that people believe it.”

Medicaid is spending less per recipient today than in 2001, Dunkelberg says. The program’s bigger footprint can be traced to demographics, not overuse, she argued. Texas accounts for half the increase in children in the U.S., says the census, and most of them are poor.

The point about the reimbursement rates being set by the Legislature has been made before, but can’t be made often enough. If you don’t maintain your car, you have no business complaining when it craps out on you. Given the flexibility that the federal government has already shown Florida and Arkansas, there’s no question that co-pays will be allowed – Rep. Coleman has been talking about that, and some other items on Texas’ wish list, all along. The rest is up to us. And please note, if we really cared about controlling costs we’d be all over the Medicaid option. There’s no reason at all to believe that the private insurance way – the Arkansas option – will be less expensive. At the end of the day, if we don’t expand access to health care, via Medicaid or some convoluted not-Medicaid process, it will be because the Republicans chose not to, not because it didn’t make sense not to do so. Burka has more.

Division over the payday loan bill

Quite a heated little fight in the Senate yesterday.

An ugly scene erupted in the Texas Senate today, with Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) suggesting that some of his Republican colleagues were “shills” for the payday loan industry and worrying that the GOP would be seen as “the party that is backed and bankrolled by payday lenders.”

After intense negotiations this week, Carona told lawmakers he had struck a deal to pass legislation to reform payday and auto-title lending in Texas. Most of the consumer groups, the cities, Senate Democrats and even the payday loan industry were on board with the “hard-fought compromise,” he said.

“There have been great concessions on both sides,” Carona said. “We can leave this chamber at the end of May and honestly say we made a significant incremental step forward on protecting consumers.”

However, as Carona moved toward a suspension of the rule to bring the bill up for debate, which requires two-thirds of the Senate, he complained that payday-loan lobbyists were calling senators on the Senate floor and asking them to change their votes. He even hinted that two GOP senators were acting as agents for the industry.

“If we don’t do it this time, you won’t be able to regulate this industry two years from now,” he said. “This industry will be so much wealthier, so much more politically powerful that you won’t be able to say no and you won’t be able to draw the line. I know the lobbyists are just in a frenzy right now to try to stir up some action on the floor and get one or two of my colleagues who seem to be working the floor to change their vote.”

Sen. Carona wound up pulling the bill down. The Trib adds some details.

Carona, who said the bill had been “negotiated literally through the night,” brought with him to the floor six amendments that were intended to address the concerns of some consumer advocates who said the bill didn’t go far enough in limiting the abilities of short-term lenders.

Ultimately, the bill was pulled before debate on the amendments began, but Carona said they mostly contained ways to strengthen consumer protections, including limiting the types of loans that short-term lenders could offer, mandating that lenders accept partial payments, and limiting the maximum duration of multiple-payment loans — a major sticking point for consumer advocates.

“There are only two or three amendments that the industry really finds objectionable,” he said, “and in that case, all we’re asking the chamber to do is do what’s right for consumers.”

Early in the debate, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said many senators’ support for the measure would depend on the inclusion of those six amendments in the final bill.

“I think that there will be an effort to stop 16 people from voting for any conference committee report that strips those out,” he said, referring to the version of the bill that could emerge from a future House vote.

But some senators, who had previously expressed their intent to vote for the bill that emerged from committee, balked at the proposed changes. In an argument about process that turned personal, critics of the bill took issue with the way Carona brought his amendments to the floor.

Leading the criticism was state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who charged that Carona hadn’t given the chamber enough time to review the proposed changes. While calling payday lending reform a “difficult issue,” he asked Carona if he had sent the amendments around 24 hours in advance. Carona’s reply was sharp.

“No, sir,” he said. “And, frankly, I haven’t seen you do that with your bills.”

[…]

Fraser was joined in his criticism by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who also argued that the legislative process should be slowed down to give senators time to consider prospective amendments, adding that he had concerns about Houston’s ability to regulate payday lending under the bill.

“What’s the rush?” Whitmire asked Carona.

Because “the industry has hired damn near every lobbyist in town to kill this bill,” Carona replied.

When Carona replied that he had been in constant contact with the city of Houston to determine its position on the bill, Whitmire erupted, telling Carona that he would represent his own constituents. He again criticized Corona for rushing the process.

“When you were negotiating this most recent agreement, I was chairing [Senate] Criminal Justice for four hours,” Whitmire said. “I think this has gotten totally out of control.”

The bill in question is SB 1247. Before this kerfuffle, the main divisions had been among consumer advocates.

Some progressive groups, including the Center for Public Policy Priorities and Texas Impact, have thrown their support behind the bill, arguing that it’s better than the status quo.

“For us, doing nothing is not an option this time around,” said Don Baylor, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. He points to estimates that limiting the number of times borrowers can “roll over” loans would save consumers at least $132 million.

“You get to a point where you ask yourself the question, Is there any more money [for consumers] left on the table? The folks that have decided to support it have decided there isn’t any more money on the table.”

Bee Moorhead, director of interfaith group Texas Impact, said that it’s important that legislators show the increasingly aggressive and powerful industry who’s boss.

“The thing that’s hard is that first step,” Moorhead said, “saying the state gets to decide under what terms you do business.”

Opposing the bill, however, are most Senate Democrats, the Texas Catholic Conference, Baptist organizations, Texas Appleseed and AARP.

They say that Carona’s approach falls short of meaningful reform and sanctions harmful new loan products.

“Our opposition is that this bill doesn’t do what it purports to do,” said Ann Baddour, with Austin-based group Texas Appleseed.

The pre-emption of local ordinances is the sticking point for many, myself included. It should be noted that there is a decent argument for proceeding anyway, as articulated in the Chron.

The bill has split the community of nonprofits that lobby legislation affecting the poor. Favoring it are the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Goodwill Industries and Texas Impact, whose leaders believe it provides a pragmatic system of statewide regulation.

While it pre-empts the stronger city ordinances, they believe lenders simply are directing borrowers to suburban locations outside the reach of city enforcement.

The industry has launched legal challenges to those ordinances that probably will be resolved by the conservative Texas Supreme Court, said Scott McCown, executive director of the public policy center. “Do we really think that if the ordinances are challenged, the Texas Supreme Court is going to say they are valid and enforceable?” he asked.

McCown also said most cities do not have the “economic wherewithal” to enforce the ordinances. While he would like the bill to be stronger, McCown said, “our assessment is that this was the best we could do.”

[…]

Carona’s bill would limit the number of times lenders could “roll over” a loan and charge new fees. That provision would save Texas consumers at least $132 million a year, according to an analysis by the Texas Consumer Credit Commission.

[Rob] Norcross said [the payday lending group Consumer Service Alliance of Texas] agreed to it in response to the plethora of city ordinances and the burden that dealing with so many different laws creates for business. “If anybody thinks anybody (in the industry) is happy, they are wrong,” he said. “This is a high price to pay.”

I’m a half-a-loaf guy and I get where McCown and Moorhead are coming from. I’m still reluctant to support this thing, though perhaps I’d feel better once I knew what the amendments that never got to be debated are about. The Observer indicated that Carona may bring the bill back on Monday, though the Trib suggested it could be longer than that. I don’t know what to think at this point, other than to marvel once again at how sleazy the payday lending industry is. Trail Blazers has more.

Here come the tax cut proposals

When the sunny revenue forecast came in, we immediately got one crappy tax cut idea, to eliminate the margins tax at a cost of $4.5 billion. The Texas Association of Business didn’t care for the idea, at least at first, but are now warming up to it, because this is what they do.

For Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, it’s a simple formula: Keep taxes low and the Texas economic engine keeps on chugging. Hammond says making permanent the business tax exemption for companies that bring in less than $1 million in gross receipts would fuel the economy, as would allowing those making more than that to exempt their first $1 million.

“Currently if you do $900,000 in receipts, you pay no tax,” Hammond said. “If you have $1.1 million in receipts you pay tax on the entire amount.”

With a million-dollar exemption, the latter company would pay taxes on just $100,000.

Hammond also wants to lower the franchise tax rate by a quarter of a percent. And lest consumers feel left out, the proposal includes a sales tax exemption for college textbooks.

[…]

Hammond’s proposals would cost the state more than $4 billion, money he says should be off limits to lawmakers, because spending it would put the state over a constitutional cap on state budget growth.

“Unless there’s a vote of two-thirds of both bodies to bust the constitutional cap, that money will either be sitting in the treasury forever maybe, or, as we believe, it should be returned to the taxpayers,” he said.

But Hammond’s numbers don’t exactly add up. The $4 billion would be off limits based on the current size of the 2012-13 budget. But lawmakers are expected to add about $7 billion to that budget in a supplemental appropriation early this spring. That would increase the cap for the new budget and erase that $4 billion overage.

Hammond calls his proposal a starting point and expects more tax cut ideas in coming weeks.

Well, the margins tax was born on fuzzy math, so it would be somehow poetic if its demise began with more fuzzy math. The Statesman has more:

Hammond said the rate cut proposed by TAB could be the the first step in phasing out the franchise tax.

Until the latest revenue forecasts, Hammond had said he doubted the state would have the revenue to phase out a franchise tax that has accounted for about 10 percent of all state tax revenue. But he said Texas Comptroller Susan Combs’ forecast for the next two years changed his mind.

“We needed to see how much money was available,” Hammond said. “There’s money to fund some or all of it.”

Dick Lavine with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income families, disagrees.

Lavine said state funding for education is $500 per student less than before the 2011 cuts. He also noted Texas’ needs for water and transportation infrastructure.

Although the Legislature is expected to be even more conservative this year than in 2011, Lavine said he’s begun talking to GOP lawmakers and they aren’t in lock step for tax cuts.

“Not all of them are enthusiastic about tax cuts because they realize the state has higher priorities,” Lavine said.

Priorities, remember those? You know, like water and transportation and Medicaid and weaning the budget off of accounting tricks and paying off all those bills the Lege deferred from 2011. Those things. Oh, yeah, and public education, which the Lege won’t address this session beyond maybe funding enrollment growth but which Lt. Gov. Dewhurst wants to set some money aside in anticipation of a court ruling that more must be spent. This is why if you think in terms of what Texas actually needs, we’re falling well short of what we should be spending. Even without that, it’s hard to see where the room for a multi-billion dollar extravagance like this comes from. You can pay for the things Texas needs, or you can throw a bunch of money down the tax cut drain. You can’t do both.

And as a reminder, it’s not just the big ticket items that are clamoring for their fair share of the pie, it’s the smaller line items, too.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would close seven state parks during the 2014-2015 biennium under preliminary budget proposals from the House and Senate, and at least one group is ready to fight to keep them open.

In discussions before the legislative session began, the parks and wildlife department requested that the Legislative Budget Board allocate an additional $18.9 million from the sporting goods sales tax to keep all parks operational. The preliminary House and Senate budgets, released Tuesday, call for only an additional $6.9 million over the next biennium from that tax.

Ian Davis, the directof of Keep Texas Parks Open, said parks improve Texans’ quality of life and stimulate local economies, especially in smaller counties. His organization will hold town hall meetings around the state and organize Texans online to advocate for additional funds so the department can keep all its parks open.

“We are trying to mobilize people across the state so they understand that it could be their park that closes,” Davis said.

Here’s their Facebook page if the idea of not spending less than 0.1% of the revenue we have to keep Texas’ parks open offends you. We have a choice to make. We really ought to try to make a good one.

Like it or not, Obamacare is coming to Texas

The Better Texas blog reminds us that as the Affordable Care Act fully kicks in next year there are things that need to be done in Texas to be compliant

It's constitutional - deal with it

[W]hat I hope to see are bills that prepare Texas for 2014 market changes to help keep premiums reasonable, encourage competition, and ensure that the Texas Department Insurance (TDI) can protect Texas consumers.

Starting in 2014:

  • Insurers can no longer deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions or charge sick people, women, and small businesses more;
  • Subsidies will be available to help Texans above the poverty line buy private health coverage in the new exchange;
  • New risk adjustment mechanisms kick in.  They aim to eliminate incentives for insurers to avoid enrollees in poor health, while keeping any one insurer from bearing more than its fair share of risk from sicker enrollees; and
  • Many policies must contain “essential health benefits,” a new floor for coverage.

In light of these sweeping market changes, TDI needs appropriate tools to protect health insurance consumers.  First, TDI needs to be able to reject unreasonable rate increases. Insurers will incorporate all of the changes listed above will into health insurance premiums.   Consumers will benefit if the experts and actuaries at TDI check that insurers have made reasonable assumptions about costs and savings that come from these changes and have authority to deny excessive rate increases.

Second, TDI needs clear authority to enforce new consumer protections, such as no more pre-existing condition exclusions.  Unless Texas updates its Insurance Code to reflect consumer protections that take effect in 2014, conflicting state and federal laws will create confusion for consumers and insurers alike.  And if TDI isn’t authorized to enforce new consumer protections, federal regulators may step in.

Well, the feds are going to be running our insurance exchanges, so why not let them handle consumer protection, too? How much do you trust Rick Perry’s TDI to get this right? The irony here is that not giving TDI the tools to enforce the new insurance regulations might be seen as poking a finger in the feds’ eyes when in fact it’s opening the door for them, much as the refusal to implement insurance exchanges was. The logic sure is hard to understand sometimes.

Meet the new budget

Same as the old budget.

Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature on Monday offered spare first drafts of the state’s next two-year budget that continue $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made last session and freeze funding for an embattled state agency set up to find a cure for cancer.

Upending recent tradition, the Texas Senate is starting off with the leaner budget this session, one that’s about $1 billion smaller than the House budget but spends nearly the same amount in general revenue, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. General revenue typically makes up around half of the total budget, with much of the remainder coming from federal funding.

The Senate proposed a $186.8 billion budget, a 1.6 percent drop from $189.9 billion, the amount the current budget is estimated to grow to after lawmakers pay for some unpaid bills in the current budget this session. General revenue spending makes up $89 billion of the budget, up 1.5 percent from the current budget.

The total House budget will be $187.7 billion, down 1.2 percent from the current budget. General revenue spending makes up $89.2 billion, a 2 percent increase from the current budget.

Both proposals drew swift criticism from Democrats and education groups, but Republican lawmakers in both chambers stressed that the budgets are merely starting points.

Let’s just say that they’ll have to show it to me before I believe it. The first time House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts or Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams starts talking about “tax relief”, I’ll know the fix is in. The debate over the supplemental budget, which will need to pay off some IOUs on Medicaid and school funds, will give us an indication of how this is going to go.

The embedded graphic above is from the Better Texas blog, which is a product of the CPPP and which you should be reading. Their point is that even with the higher revenue estimate, we’re still way below what we’d need to be spending to cover population growth and cost increases. It’s going to take a change in government to get to that point.

Still, some things do change, and the Statesman notes one of them.

One relatively small-dollar change will have an out-sized political effect. The House provided no money for the state standardized testing system, a $98 million reduction in state dollars, while the Senate fully funded the program.

Frustration has been building over the testing system, known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, and parents and some business leaders are pushing for major changes. The House appears ready to force the issue.

“It will at least force the discussion,” said Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped found Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a parent group seeking an overhaul of the state testing system. “I think it was a very bold move.”

It’s unlikely that the final budget will zero out funding for the STAAR test, but I do agree that this will prioritize the debate over just how much standardized testing we need. Keep an eye on that.

Here are responses to the budget from Rep. Mike Villarreal and the Texas AFT. So far everyone is taking Pitts and Williams at their word that what they’ve put out now is just a starting point. If we want to end up someplace better, now is an excellent time to let your Rep and Senator know what your priorities are. It’s also a good time to note that the first Save Texas Schools rally for the session is on the calendar:

In the face of underfunding, over testing and proposed vouchers, get ready to join thousands of concerned Texans as we stand up for quality education for ALL Texas students.

DATE: Saturday, February 23, 2013

TIME/PLACE: March: 10:45 a.m. on the Congress Avenue Bridge to the Capitol.  Rally: Noon – 1:30 p.m. at the Texas State Capitol on the South Steps, Congress Ave. & 11th St.

AGENDA: Speakers include Supt. John Kuhn and Diane Ravitch. More soon!

Organizing in Your Area: Click here to be an organizer in your area.

Transportation: We have scholarships available to local groups to help with buses this year. Click here to apply. Please contact Save Texas Schools as soon as possible!

Let us know you’re coming! Click here to sign the Save Texas Schools petition and to register for the rally.

As always, speak now or forever lose the right to complain about the end result. Burka is dumbfounded by it all, Grits says that “on the criminal justice front they’re not off to an inspiring start”, and EoW, Sen. Kirk Watson, and the Observer have more.

How the so-called “fiscal cliff” might affect Texas

There is of course a very simple way to avoid this.

Best when done in Acapulco

If President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans cannot avoid tripping off the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff, then the Texas budget could be more than $1 billion short over the next two years.

But fewer federal dollars flowing through the state budget would be just part of the problem for Texas.

The state could feel an even bigger pinch because Texas is so dependent on other federal dollars associated with defense, homeland security and border protection, said Eva DeLuna Castro, senior budget analyst for Center for Public Policy Priorities.

The potential for cuts to the state budget and to direct federal spending in Texas is serious enough that state lawmakers plan a hearing on the issue next week, with testimony invited from state agency officials and others about the possible impact.

Federal spending in Texas is about one-fifth of the total economy, DeLuna Castro said. Based on 2010 figures, $226 billion federal dollars were spent in Texas. Social Security made up $43 billion of the spending; Medicare accounted for $16 billion, and defense spending totaled $59 billion, DeLuna Castro said.

As far as the state budget goes, automatic federal spending cuts – which would be triggered Jan. 2 by the sequestration outlined in the Budget Control Act of 2011 — could reach $1.1 billion and affect 13 state agencies, according to the state’s Legislative Budget Board.

Just as a reminder, this dispute is over 1) the Republicans’ refusal to approve an extension of the Bush tax cuts for families making under $250,000 a year unless those making over $250,000 a year get the same extension for the top tax rate, and 2) the stupid “sequestration” budget cuts that the Republicans insisted on as part of the deal they made when they took the debt ceiling hostage in 2011. They’re holding out on saving tax cuts for the wealthy even though they have no leverage since the law will change and all tax cuts will expire if nothing happens by the end of the year and the voters made their preference clear last month in the hope of reaching a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction that gives them everything they want. All that needs to be done is for the House to pass the bill that the Senate already passed to extend the tax cuts for all but the top bracket, and there’s a discharge petition in the House that needs 26 Republican signatures to force a vote on that. The sequestration cuts can be easily undone as well, it’s just a matter of the GOP accepting the results of the election and the reality that tax rates are going up no matter what Grover Norquist says. This isn’t rocket science.

What’s $2 billion among friends?

Easy come, easy go, am I right?

It's constitutional - deal with it

If Texas leaders turn down the federal health law’s Medicaid expansion, they will reject a $2 billion annual revenue stream for the state’s hospitals, according to Dan Mendelson, CEO and founder of Avalere Health, a strategic advisory company based in Washington, D.C.

Speaking at about 2 minutes, 5 seconds into the video above, which records part of a Politico Pro event held in Washington on Thursday, Mendelson says of the Affordable Care Act’s proposed adult Medicaid expansion:

“If you think about, for example, in the state of Texas, if they don’t expand, that’s close to $2 billion of revenue for Texas hospitals and at a time when they are essentially going to be paying for the ACA expansions for everybody else,” he said. “So the math here is even more dire than it was … . The math will start to overtake the politics as the governors start to really understand what the economics are here for the providers — because again, the governor gets to decide whether these providers are going to go out of business.”

Click the link above to see the video. The thing that everyone needs to remember is that saying “no” doesn’t change any of the arithmetic. That $2 billion is going to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is local taxpayers, who will be forced to deal with the expense at the county level. If there’s ever going to be a break in this impasse, it will have to come from counties and hospital districts.

Former state Medicaid official Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the center-left think tank the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, says that if Texas doesn’t expand Medicaid, it will forego an additional $7 billion a year of federal Medicaid matching money in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Mendelson, who was a health policy bigwig at the Office of Management and Budget in the final years of former President Bill Clinton’s administration, said Florida Gov. Rick Scott has suddenly changed his tune about the federal law and decided “maybe he needs to work with it.” Mendelson didn’t make a prediction about Perry, who it can be argued leads a more conservative state than Scott does — and apparently wants to run for president again.

Speaking of governors in general, though, he added, “It just becomes much more difficult to hold high principle when from an economic perspective, you’ve got severe adversity that you are causing to happen to providers in your state.”

Never underestimate Rick Perry’s ability to deny reality in pursuit of a political goal. Remember also, just because Texas doesn’t get the benefit of federal funds for Medicaid expansion doesn’t mean that Texas will pay any less into the federal kitty for those funds. Our tax dollars will be subsidizing all those other states that do accept the funds for Medicaid expansion. I’m sure Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown and the like will be very appreciative of that. Some other Republican states are figuring this out, but as usual I expect Texas to lag behind the field. Seems to me this could be a pretty good rallying cry for Democratic turnout in 2014, if we intend to be serious about trying to win that year.

Fee for all

Fees are part of the answer for Texas’ pressing infrastructure needs, but they aren’t and cannot be the whole solution.

To help keep the Texas business climate robust, lawmakers should double state fees on motor vehicle registrations and impose a new fee on every water meter in the state, the state’s largest business lobbying group said Thursday.

Economic development competitors are using Texas’ lack of investment in water resources and roads against it, and the fees could help the state address those issues, Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, told a special committee of lawmakers and business leaders.

Other states are telling companies, “Don’t go to Texas. They’re not investing in infrastructure,” Hammond told the Select Committee on Economic Development. The committee is studying how to encourage continued business development.

[…]

The business group is suggesting a $1.50 monthly fee on every water meter as well as every irrigation well in a water conservation district. Hammond estimated that the fee would raise $150 million a year to encourage local governments to develop new water resources.

Likewise, Hammond said, increasing the motor registration fee would raise more than $1 billion a year for highway construction. That money, according to the Texas Association of Business report, could be leveraged into $14 billion to $16 billion in bonds for new roads.

Most motorists now pay $50.75 per vehicle to the state and another $5 to $11.50 in local fees.

Hammond said, “The business community feels so strongly, we are willing to offer a specific solution.”

That solution, however, has critics.

Dick Lavine, a fiscal analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said he agrees that the state needs to invest more in transportation, water and education. But he disagrees with using fees that hit well-off people the same as the poor people.

“They pretend that everyone has the same ability to pay,” Lavine said. “We’d like something so those who can afford more, pay more.”

Hammond countered there is little appetite in the Legislature for raising taxes.

Usually when there is a pressing need for something that isn’t popular, functional societies rely on something called “leadership” to make it happen. You know, the whole “doing the right thing” thing. Regressive though they may be, I don’t have any abiding objections to these fees, but let’s get real: Neither will raise nearly enough money to solve the problems. Raising the gas tax is still the best option, and if done right could just about wipe out the transportation funding deficit. The water issue is somewhat more intractable, but hey, that’s what we elected these people to figure out. It’s on them to get it done, and it’s on them if they don’t.

Revenues rise, but reality recognition doesn’t

Good news and bad news, because we can’t have one without the other.

The latest bit of positive fiscal news came Tuesday when the state comptroller released numbers showing that business tax collections in Texas had exceeded projections.

Comptroller Susan Combs had estimated that the franchise tax paid by businesses would bring in about $4 billion in the first year of the 2012-13 budget. The $4.3 billion collected in May has already beaten that mark, and more payments will trickle in come August.

Sales tax collections, the most important source of state revenue, have also been coming in well above projections for the budget year, which began in September, and could produce billions in unanticipated revenue.

But state agencies, in the first step toward writing the 2014-15 state budget, were instructed Monday to submit budget proposals that do not exceed what they are getting in the current two-year budget.

They must also provide plans for how to implement a 10 percent reduction during 2014-15, if necessary.

[…]

“We are getting so far and far from reality that it really endangers our future economic growth,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for low- and middle-income Texans.

State leaders have created a “new normal” as a starting point, particularly in education, and “that is a terrible place to start off on, especially when they have the money to undo the cuts,” DeLuna Castro said.

That presumes they want to, which they don’t. They will have to be made to do so, or they will have to be gotten out of the way in favor of others who want to do so. Easier said than done, of course, but there it is. And while Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Joe Straus are busy crowing about how their draconian policies led to these revenue increases, Burka provides a dash of reality.

Overall, tax collections have been robust, up 12.56%, year to date, over 2011 levels. Sales taxes are up 11.71%. Oil severance taxes are up 42.6%. Natural gas severance taxes are up 44.3%.

Perry, Dewhurst, and Straus can claim credit for whatever they want, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t have anything to do with putting oil and gas in the ground. EoW has more, and a statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman is here.

One million uninsured kids

One point two million uninsured kids in Texas, actually. But who’s counting?

More than 1 million Texas children remain without health insurance, and those kids are not getting the care they need.

The startling condition of the state’s children came into vivid focus last week with the release of the annual Kids Count survey. The analysis of official state and federal data by the non-partisan Center for Public Policy Priorities found that 1.2 million Texas children have neither private nor public health insurance.

Almost 40 percent of Texas mothers received little or no prenatal care and one in seven babies were born premature, statistics show. The difference between being insured and uninsured is stark: 90 percent of insured kids are healthy, while only 58 percent of kids without insurance are considered healthy.

It comes as no surprise that the percentage of children covered by health care is directly related to the employment rate and the parent’s economic status.

With 25 percent of Texas children living in poverty, a rate that consistently runs 5 percent above the national average, Texas ranks 41st in the nation in number of uninsured kids, even though the unemployment rate is lower than the national average.

When uninsured kids get sick, their parents have no place to take them other than a public hospital’s emergency room, which by law cannot turn them away. And if those parents cannot pay the extremely expensive bill? The taxpayer picks up the tab.

“A large percentage of those kids will end up in the emergency room as their primary source of care, which is hugely inefficient and ridiculously expensive,” said Dr. Skip Brown, a medical professor and director of a pediatrics center at the University of Texas Medical Branch

“When you go to the emergency department, those guys are not there to be primary care providers.”

You can see the Kids Count data here. The story notes that many uninsured kids would be eligible for CHIP or Medicaid if they applied for it, but one reason why Texas has so many uninsured kids is precisely because the state does a lot to make it hard for them to apply, including things like requiring in person interviews and a six-month enrollment period instead of a 12-month period like those of us with employer-based insurance have. It’s a deliberate strategy, because insuring those kids would add to the state’s budget, whereas emergency room visits are paid for by counties. If the state’s Republican leadership applied even one tenth of the ferocity they have in fighting Obamacare to doing something about this massive problem at home, there would have eradicated it by now. But after ten years of Republican rule, they have done nothing to improve matters. Insuring kids and providing them with preventative health care is cheap. Paying for the problems of adults who didn’t get health care as kids, that’s expensive. Too bad Rick Perry and his cronies don’t see it that way.

Texas high school graduation rate improved over the last decade

According to one report, anyway.

Texas’ graduation rate for high school students increased 1.9 percent since 2002 to just below the national average, according to a new report by a coalition of education groups.

The report found that high school graduation rates rose from 73.5 percent to 75.4 percent between 2002 and 2009, and pulled almost even with the 2009 average nationwide of 75.5 percent.

The national graduation rate, though, increased faster than the state’s, climbing 2.9 percent over the same 7-year period. The biggest gains nationwide came in Tennessee, where rates jumped 17.8 percent, and New York, which increased 13 percent, between 2002 and 2009.

[…]

The report will be presented Monday in Washington at the Building a Grad Nation summit sponsored by America’s Promise Alliance, a children’s advocacy organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was authored by John Bridgeland and Mary Bruce of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm focused on social change, and Robert Balfanz and Joanna Fox of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The authors used the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate, which tracks first-year students through all their years in high school, since they said it was the best and most-recent data available nationwide.

You can find the report here. It actually says that the nation’s graduation rate rose by 3.5 percentage points, from 72.0 to 75.5, during the 2002 to 2009 time period. Not sure why the news report got that wrong. Given that, despite the positive spin in the opening paragraphs, this actually means that Texas’ graduation rate fell below the national average during this time.

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t improvement:

As recently as 2010, the Texas Legislative Budget Board reported the state’s overall graduation rate ranked a dismal 43rd nationwide. Last month, though, the Texas Education Agency announced that a National Governor’s Association report put Texas’ graduation rate for the class of 2010 at 84.3 percent, or 10th highest among the 34 participating states who track student performance over their entire high school career. Yet another report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the state’s 2008-2009 graduation rate was 75.4 percent, or 28th in the nation — findings similar to those in Monday’s report.

“There’s lots of different ways to look at it and everybody’s got a different intention,” said Frances Deviney, Texas Kids Count director at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. But she said other measures, including drop-out rates, have fallen in recent years, providing additional evidence more high schoolers statewide are graduating.

“It is getting better,” Deviney said, though she worries that cuts in state funding for programs designed to keep students from leaving school early could eventually undo those gains.

What happens going forward is the big question. Either the massive cuts to public education funding have a negative effect on the graduation rate or they don’t. I should note that even without the cuts, there are a lot of people who are concerned that the new STAAR test and the end of course exams now mandated for high school students would contribute to a higher dropout rate regardless. We know how things were going before 2011. It will be a few years before we really know what happened after 2011. What will we do if we find we’ve reversed course?

State revenues inching up

A little bit of good news.

State coffers will be bit plumper than previously expected, Comptroller Susan Combs announced Monday, but her outlook for the Texas economy is less optimistic.

Texas is estimated to collect $1.6 billion more than was budgeted for 2012-13, the two-year budget that started Sept. 1. The comptroller’s report provides the first official state revenue update since January.

[…]

The driving force behind the additional state dollars is improved sales tax collections, particularly in the oil and gas industry, according to the report.

Sales tax revenue from the mining industry, which includes oil and gas, was up 72 percent in the previous fiscal year. The industry also created 17.3 percent more jobs, while the rest of Texas’ industries combined had job growth of 1.9 percent .

But Combs cautioned against expecting that kind of robust growth going forward. Industry job losses in 2013 are expected to wipe out any gains in 2012, she said.

“The Texas unemployment rate — as low as 4.3 percent in early 2007 — is now at 8.4 percent and giving no indication of receding rapidly,” Combs said.

You can see Combs’ letter to state leaders about her revenue update here. This is better than the alternative, but it’s not going to do much to mitigate the cuts we experienced this spring. Mainly, if things continue on this pace, it means that at least the next Lege won’t have to start out by closing a deficit left over from the prior biennium, as this one did. Make sure you understand that when you read stories like this.

After a long run of tough times brought on by a sour economy, Texas lawmakers got some good news Monday as the state’s chief fiscal officer projected a $1.6 billion surplus that could provide a much-needed financial cushion for the next session of the Legislature.

The windfall available for the fiscal biennium that started Sept. 1 was generated by better-than-expected state revenue. It could enable lawmakers to partly offset a $4.8 billion shortfall in Medicaid and soften some other cuts enacted during the 2011 Legislature, analysts said.

The new projections by Comptroller Susan Combs will make things easier for budget-writers at the outset of the next legislative session in 2013, although lawmakers will still face a host of financial challenges.

Combs projected available revenue of $82.7 billion by the time the biennium ends on Aug. 31, 2013, which would give the state a $1.6 billion balance over the $81.1 billion in the two-year budget approved by this year’s Legislature.

Lawmakers entered the 2011 session facing one of the biggest shortfalls in years.

They ultimately enacted an austere budget that cut spending by $15.2 billion over the previous biennium and reduced state aid to public education by $4 billion.

[…]

Dale Craymer, president of the business-supported Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, said Combs’ report offers good news for lawmakers. In passing the $172.3 billion budget, lawmakers left Medicaid underfunded by $4.8 billion and expected to tamp down the shortfall by drawing from the state rainy-day fund in 2013. Craymer said lawmakers can use the surplus to partly meet the Medicaid obligation.

Combs projected that the rainy-day fund will reach $7.3 billion by the end of 2013.

Eva DeLuna Castro, an analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for programs for low-income Texans, said the surplus means that lawmakers “will have a little left over” to deal with Medicaid and restore $250 million in general revenue cuts. But she said the amount is not big enough to deal with broader financial issues, including state policies that critics say have created a permanent “structural” deficit. She called Combs’ projection “mediocre at best.”

This report has to do with this biennium. Other than ensuring that there should be enough in the Rainy Day Fund to handle the massive Medicaid short-changing and not requiring a second dip into the RDF to close the books on this chapter, it doesn’t really tell us anything about what conditions to expect for the next biennium and the budget that legislators will have to write for it. I fully expect there will still be a large deficit, quite likely another eight-digit shotrfall, because the underlying structural deficit of the business margins tax not paying for the 2006 property tax cuts is still there. Some healthier sales tax numbers aren’t going to make a dent in that. We also have no idea what may result from the various school finance lawsuits, but since they will be arguing (among other things) that the state is not adequtely funding public education, you can expect that to put some pressure on lawmakers to find more revenue. And of course the kind of lawmakers we have in place for when that comes up will have a huge effect on the kind of solutions, or “solutions”, that are found. We’ve got a long way to go before things change.

Don’t expect the next budget to be any better than this one

Continuing a theme I’ve harped on here, if state legislators thought that they solved Texas’ budget issues this year they are sadly mistaken.

Some experts say Texas tax revenues must zoom far above forecasts, if we’re to escape another miserable budget session in 2013. But the state’s leading forecaster on Wednesday offered little hope that will happen.

“The year of ’12 is not going to be a great recovery year,” John Heleman, chief revenue estimator for the Texas comptroller’s office, testified at the House Ways and Means Committee. He was referring to the fiscal year that began this month and ends Aug. 31, while answering a question from Kerrville GOP Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, the panel’s chairman.

“It’s still going to be flattish [and] soft,” Heleman said.

That could mean, if you check out the bottom half of this post I had earlier this month, that we’re sailing into fiscal headwinds in trying to keep up with the education, health care and transportation needs of a growing state. True, as Hilderbran pointed out, recent revenue numbers have looked good. Final but unofficial figures for fiscal 2011 show sales tax receipts increased by 9.4 percent over the previous year, which was — in a word — ugly. Fiscal 2010 included December 2009, which “marked the low point in Texas employment” during the Great Recession, Heleman said in a written presentation. In the just-ended fiscal year, Texas consumers and diners spent about 5.5 percent more on retail and restaurant purchases, he testified. The reason overall sales tax receipts leapt by 9.4 percent was “supercharging” from a burst of oil and gas drilling activity, some decent manufacturing growth and a bit of an uptick in at least parts of the construction industry, said Heleman.

This fiscal year, though, he sees “probably a little bit less than” 5.5 percent growth in retail and restaurant sales. As for the energy exploration and production sector’s purchasing, “it’s actually just going to flatten out — at higher levels,” he said. But that won’t grow, in percentage terms, the way it did last year.

Click on that link referenced above, and you learn the following bit of cheery news:

In the 2013 session, the budget gap may very well turn out to be as large. The economy’s recovery is slow, and lawmakers this year exhausted many of the available, one-time-only fiscal remedies — such as delaying state payments and speeding up tax collections. They also punted a $4.8 billion Medicaid IOU to next session. Yes, this time they could do that because they left about $6 billion in the rainy day fund. But next time? Probably a non-starter.

If revenue doesn’t run well ahead of forecasts for the next two years, and keep growing strongly for the two years after that, then “2013 will pretty much be a re-run of the 2011 revenue shortfall – with a 24 percent gap, instead of 27 percent,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, budget expert at the center-left Austin think tank the Center for Public Policy Priorities. That’s “back of the envelope,” but still pretty alarming, she said.

But don’t worry. The legislators will always have flim-flammery available to them.

In a report released this week, Comptroller Susan Combs illustrates the trickery that legislators and Gov. Rick Perry used to get there. That’s because lawmakers assess fees under the guise that they will be used for a specific purpose — to help low-income residents pay electric bills, for instance — but then leave much of that money unspent to balance the state budget.

Combs’ report shows the problem is getting worse. The state will leave $4.9 billion unspent in its dedicated accounts over the next two years, up from about $4.1 billion in the previous budget.

The unspent balances include $851 million that comes from fees on electric customers and is supposed to help low-income Texans defray their utility costs, $654 million meant to improve air quality and $388 million in an account for improving trauma facilities and emergency medical services. Technically, these dollars don’t get spent on other programs. But by sitting there unspent, they allow the state to show on paper that it has enough money to pay for the amount it budgets for education, health care and other high-cost programs.

That $851 million is of course the System Benefit Fund, which I’ve mentioned several times before. There’s also hunting and fishing license fee funds, which are supposed to go to the Parks and Wildlife Department, and there’s funds from the sale of specialty license plates, which are supposed to go to various non-profits. All that money is just sitting there, not being used for its intended purpose, because to do so would mean that it couldn’t be used to “balance” the budget. The end result is that these are stealth tax increases, passed because the purpose they were intended to serve was seen as worthwhile, but then not used for that purpose so the funds can then be counted along with general revenue even though they can’t be used as general revenue. A more honest approach would be to admit that we need more general revenue, not only for the things that general revenue provides for, but also so that these dedicated funds can actually be used for their intended purpose. Just another thing to think about when you go to vote next year. EoW has more.

Talking about the T word

Scott McCown brings up the subject of taxes but leaves it short of where to go from here.

If a stronger economy, honest budgeting and pitting priorities against each other aren’t the answer, what is? Texas must modestly increase taxes. No one is suggesting that Texas become a high-tax state, but Texas must raise the money needed to invest in education and other building blocks of a strong economy. As a group, Texans pay low taxes, and as a percentage of our economy our contribution has been falling.

This is not a question of living within our means. Texans have the resources in our trillion-dollar economy to meet today’s needs and build a prosperous future. But until we fix our tax system, we can’t make important investments for the common good.

The issue isn’t whether to increase taxes, but how. Our state’s major tax is a sales tax on goods – a tax designed for yesterday’s economy when we sold more goods and fewer services.

The business tax is also flawed – redesigned in 2006 to help pay for a property tax cut, it instead leaves us $10 billion per biennium short. And our state has tax giveaways and loopholes galore.

Between now and the 2013 legislative session, Texans must square our shoulders and do two things.

First, we must solve some technical problems – how do we modernize the sales tax, reform the business tax and address tax giveaways and loopholes so we have a smart and fair tax system that produces adequate revenue.

Second, we must work together to build the public will for a tax increase. There’s no other answer.

What McCown doesn’t say is which taxes should be increased. I feel reasonably confident saying that the CPPP is not about to begin plumping for the sales tax to be hiked, as that would be a regressive tax increase. To expand the sales tax to include more services, and to remove some questionable exemptions to the sales tax such as those for bottled water and high cost gas, sure. But to raise the base percentage, I don’t think so. I sure hope not, anyway.

The missing piece of the puzzle here is property taxes. The problem, as we well know, is that the business margins tax and the increase to the cigarette tax from 2006 have not come close to paying for the property tax cut of that same year. To me, the goal needs to be to close the structural deficit that was caused by this tax swap. If that can be done by simply tweaking the margins tax, or by scrapping it for a better business tax, that’s fine. If it can be done by fixing the margins tax and revamping the sales tax as described above, that’s fine too. But if we can’t do it with those things alone, then it’s the property tax rate we need to talk about increasing. There are some exemptions to property taxes that we can examine before we get to that, but if we’re really talking about raising taxes then that’s what we need to be talking about. I’m not sure if McCown avoided the topic because he ran out of space or because he wanted someone else to be the one to bring it up first. If so, here it is. Now we just need the people who are running for office to start talking about it.

We have a budget

Such as it is.

Budget negotiators met briefly this morning and voted 9-1 to adopt a conference committee report that cuts the state budget over the next biennium by $15 billion, or 8 percent. The total amount of funding from taxpayers, known as general funds, is $80.4 billion. The total expenditures for all funds, including federal money, is $172.3 billion.

Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, told reporters their respective chambers are expected to vote on the report as early as Saturday afternoon.

“We have covered the entire (2010-2011) biennial deficit and the budget is balanced for the next two years. And at the end of the day, that’s a pretty extraordinary accomplishment considering the challenge we were in,” Ogden said.

I suppose a Hollywood accountant might call this a “balanced” budget, but between the delayed payments to school districts, the $4.8 billion hot check for Medicaid, the fantasizing about federal waivers and higher-than-projected property tax revenues, it’s a budget built on cotton candy and hallucinations. And that’s before we consider the cost of slashing $4 billion from public education, which was the best case scenario for that. What still hasn’t been done is to figure out how to spread that $4 billion in cuts out over all the school districts.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said there’s a provision in the budget agreement that makes Foundation School Program payments to school districts contingent on the House and Senate agreeing on school finance.

“If there is not agreement … there’s no appropriations to the Foundation School Program. We’d have to come back in special session,” Ogden said.

Abby Rapoport has more on what the school finance options are at this point. I assume they’re strongly motivated to avoid having to go into a special session. But even if they do, there’s still the question of whether or not the Comptroller will certify the budget. Rep. Garnet Coleman has some questions for Comptroller Combs:

1. Will you evaluate the combined revenue and expenses of all major pieces of legislation regarding the state’s fiscal matters, not just the primary budget bill (House Bill 1), in determining whether or not Texas has passed a balanced budget?

The Legislature is deliberating numerous “fiscal matters” bills that have consequences on our state’s finances for FY 2012-13. In 2003, the last time Texas faced a massive budget shortfall, Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn determined that the budget was a “’patchwork’ piece of legislation that depends on several other bills to determine some of the spending” for the FY 2004-2005 budget. (Source: Associated Press, “Strayhorn criticizes lawmakers for ‘smoke and mirrors’ budget,” June 5, 2003).

Which, if any, bills other than House Bill 1 do you anticipate your office evaluating in order to determine whether or not you will certify the Texas budget?

2. Will you certify $4.8 billion in Medicaid expenses if they are not paid for with revenue Texas can identify in its budget?

Wayne Pulver, an assistant director at the Legislative Budget Board, stated before the Texas House Committee on Appropriations on Monday, May 16 that, “it is our estimate that with these funding decisions, the bill is short $4.8 billion in general revenue.” (Source: Associated Press, “Texas budget plan kicks Medicaid funding problem down the road,” May 21, 2011.) It is your intention to certify the Texas budget as balanced, even if we are budgeting to pay for something we do not have the money to pay for?

3. If you cannot certify the $4.8 billion in Medicaid expenses, will you send the budget back to the House in which it originated to ensure Texas passes a balanced budget?

In 2003, Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn refused to certify the state’s budget because it spent $186.9 million more in the FY 2004-2005 biennium than the state could count as available revenue. Governor Rick Perry, under a special provision inserted by budget writers, was able to use line-item veto authority to cut expenditures in the budget by $186.9 million. Comptroller Strayhorn was then able to certify the budget.

However, the current $4.8 billion shortfall in Medicaid expenses is over twenty-five times the size of the 2003 budget shortfall Comptroller Strayhorn originally did not certify. It is my request that, provided you do not certify the $4.8 billion in Medicaid expenses that remain unaccounted for in any legislation being considered by the Texas Legislature, you do not send the budget to the Governor to balance the budget.

It is our duty, as legislators, to pass a balanced budget. Should you determine that the budget is not balanced, I would request that you send it back to the House in which the budget originated, as prescribed by Article 3, Section 49a(b) of the Texas Constitution.

You can read Rep. Coleman’s full letter to Comptroller Combs here. A statement from the CPPP is here, and a statement from Rep. Mike Villarreal is here. Trailblazers and EoW have more.

Dewhurst flips, then flops, on using rainy day funds

First he says he’s against it.

[Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst sounded supportive of the overall level of spending in the Senate plan, but voiced a preference for using what he calls nontax revenue items instead of the rainy day fund. Some of the supposed nontax revenue ideas that senators haven’t embraced include selling some state land and property, or trying to liquidate state tobacco settlements that are now in endowments.

“I disagreed with them,” said Dewhurst, who presides over the GOP-dominated Senate. “But again, this is a process; we want to keep it moving; we want to get it into conference (committee).”

You can see a transcript of the conversation Dewhurst had with reporters over this here. The man is good at ducking and weaving, I’ll give him that.

The rainy day fund money is a critical difference between the Senate plan and the House plan, which does not spend any rainy day dollars. The Senate version also spends more than the House’s because it would allow some accounting tricks, including a speedup of tax collections and a brief delay in payments to school districts; however, the House has appeared willing to support those measures as well.

So if Dewhurst does not support using rainy day dollars, members of the Senate — particularly Democrats — may have little incentive for bringing it up for a debate on the floor. Those dollars could disappear in a conference committee with the House, since House leaders, and Perry, have said they don’t want to spend rainy day money over the next two years.

The question of whether to bring the budget to the floor has set off considerable debate in Democratic circles. One school of thought says that if Democrats block the budget, perhaps pushing the debate into a special session, Republicans will have no incentive to work with Democrats and will pass the House’s cuts-heavy approach.

But without the rainy day fund, there may be little difference between the House and Senate approaches. And the rule requiring a two-thirds vote to bring the bill to the floor would not be in effect for a final House-Senate compromise, meaning Republicans could pass it without any Democratic support.

In a memo to Democratic colleagues obtained by the American-Statesman, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said Tuesday that he believes the use of the rainy day fund will vanish in a House-Senate conference committee.

“I truly believe it would be a mistake to take any position on the budget that assumes the final version will have significant new revenues — particularly from the Rainy Day Fund — to pay for Texans’ basic needs and priorities,” Watson said. “I’m unconvinced we can trust that those in control of this process truly intend to put significant new dollars into these priorities.”

Then he says he’s for it, more or less.

A day after telling reporters that he’d resisted and been surprised by the Senate Finance Committee’s decision to allow for the use of $3 billion more from the rainy-day fund to support its spending plan, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst issued a letter to senators saying he supports the measure and asking them to do the same.

Dewhurst leaves himself a bit of wiggle room in the letter, saying that if “Texas keeps growing the way it is now, we may not need much, if any, from the Rainy Day Fund”, and calling on Comptroller Susan Combs to certify an increase in future revenue for the Senate to use, with any remaining gap to be taken from the RDF. What Plan B is if Combs refuses to do that is unclear.

I think there’s a lot of merit to Sen. Watson’s concerns. Dewhurst’s comments changed the dynamic of the debate over the Senate budget, as Rep. Garnet Coleman and the CPPP are now urging a No vote on it. I don’t know if they still feel this way after his latest change of direction. Republican Sen. John Carona is pushing back as well. Not surprisingly, Finance Committee Chair Sen. Steve Ogden, who has been struggling to find 21 votes for the budget, called Dewhurst’s remarks not helpful. You can say that again.

Consideration of HB1 is on the Senate intent calendar, but a vote may or may not happen today as there aren’t enough Yeas to suspend the rules for it – via Texas Politics, Nate Blakeslee says at least four Republicans are No votes on it, which means it may not have even a majority, let alone two thirds support. Should be a fun day in the Senate today. The Trib has more.

Harris County prepares to get hammered

The House budget will cost Harris County a bundle if it passes as is.

Harris County health care providers would lose more than $2 billion in Medicaid funding under the Texas House budget that passed Sunday night, according to an Austin think tank.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities’ county-by-county analysis found the hit, by far the most in the state, would reduce overall Medicaid funding for Harris County hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and other providers by 38 percent from the amount spent on such care in 2009.

“That would certainly be a body blow for the county, one I’d expect it to try to make up through tax and fees,” said Vivian Ho, a Rice University health care economist. “As private practice doctors get out of Medicaid, I’d also worry about the spillover effect at hospitals, like Texas Children’s, that provide care to low-income and privately insured patients.”

Houston health care providers said it was too early to know how they’d respond if such a cut were signed into law. But they were unanimous in saying it would have a huge negative impact.

You can see the CPPP’s reports here. Nobody doubts that there will be an effect, and given the scope of the cuts at the state level, that it will be a large effect, right? And nobody doubts that the people who will be directly affected by this won’t just go away but will find some other way to get medical attention, right? That means more people showing up at emergency rooms. You can do the math from there.

Members of the Harris County Commissioners Court in 2009 said they were committed not to raise property taxes, but the district is coping with reduced tax revenues because of a decline in county property values in addition to coming legislative cuts.

Noting the court is still six months away from setting tax rates, a spokesman for County Judge Ed Emmett said Friday that nothing is on or off the table for the hospital district tax rate.

Yes, it’s still early in the process, the Senate is likely to make changes, and you shouldn’t read too much into such an equivocal statement. But if Harris County winds up raising taxes as a result of this, please be sure to put the blame for it where it belongs, on the Republicans in the Lege who voted for HB1.

The Lege’s job killing budget

Do you think this is what all those people who came out to vote last November had in mind?

The Legislative Budget Board, a nonpartisan state agency that helps lawmakers with budget numbers, predicts that House version of the 2012-2013 state budget would result in 272,000 fewer jobs in Texas the first year and 335,000 fewer in 2013.

The projected loss includes eliminating 117,000 private sector jobs in 2012 and 146,000 in 2013. An amendment to the House rules by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, directed the LBB, which is overseen by the House speaker, lieutenant governor and other state leaders, to produce the Dynamic Economic Impact Statement.

“The voters did not elect us to eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs. We have to be smarter than this,” Villareal said. “We can’t grow the Texas economy with a budget that destroys jobs, hurts neighborhood schools and makes college more expensive.”

Villarreal has more here. The report doesn’t say directly that this many jobs will be lost, just that Texas will have this many fewer jobs than it would have under a baseline budget scenario. If you have a basic understanding of economics, there’s nothing surprising about this. Cutting government spending is taking money out of the economy. Firing government workers adds to unemployment. Any other conclusion by the LBB would have been shocking. What I expect to happen, if the Republicans are forced to acknowledge this report, is that they will begin attacking the LBB in much the same way that Congressional Republicans have attacked the CBO when it tells them something they don’t want to hear. So far, it’s mostly just whining, as seen in this Statesman story, but give it time. And pay heed to what this guy says:

The projections do not come as a surprise to Bernard Weinstein, an economist at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.

Weinstein said he had not examined the analysis but that it appeared to be “a government agency in the state of Texas saying, ‘Before you start slashing right and left, remember there are going to be consequences.'”

Weinstein said it was obvious that proposed budget cuts would have an effect on the state’s job market.

“Jobs creation results from spending by both the private sector and the public sector. So now you have what economists call the negative multiplier,” Weinstein said. “By cutting the budget here and cutting the budget there, there will be at least for some time a negative economic impact on income, employment and tax revenue. By cutting state spending, you are cutting state revenues, because the recipients of that spending will not be paying taxes on that.”

Weinstein said the effect is illustrated by the possibility of thousands of teachers being laid off statewide as part of the budget crunch.

“Where are they going to find employment quickly?” he said. “The answer is: nowhere.”

All I can say is that I’m glad to see some kind of counterweight to the overly optimistic forecasts of job growth in Texas. I think we have tougher times ahead than a lot of people expect. If I’m right about that, who do you suppose will get blamed for it this time? Burka, Postcards, Texas Politics, and the CPPP have more, and see also this article in The Economist for a broader view of Texas’ economic situation.

Comptroller finds a few more bucks

Better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Comptroller Susan Combs has revised the state’s 2011 revenue estimate by $300 million because of stronger-than-expected sales tax collections.

That change would reduce the deficit in the current budget to $4 billion and make an additional $300 million available for appropriation in the next two-year budget, which begins Sept. 1.

[…]

If sales tax revenue continues at this pace, the state could bring in $620 million more than Combs estimated, according to Eva DeLuna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

It’s not much, but it does help. Every extra dollar Combs estimates is a dollar that won’t get cut. Of course, these newer estimates are based on the improvement in the economy, and the biggest threat to that is the huge number of job cuts that would be forced by the Republican budget policies in Texas and in Congress. So I trust you’ll understand if I keep my celebration of this news modest.

You can see Combs’ letter about the revenue estimate revision at the Trib, which notes that it’s early in the session for such a revision; that may well portend a further change. In the meantime, however, it’s unclear whether this will affect the nascent consensus to use some of the Rainy Day Fund. The votes to make that happen aren’t quite there yet.

Meanwhile, Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, shed possible light on why House Appropriations abruptly cancelled a scheduled meeting Monday morning, at which is was planning to approve a bill tapping $4.3 billion of rainy-day dollars to cover a deficit in the current cycle.

“The House is struggling mightily with that 60 percent — three-fifths — vote,” Ogden said, referring to the supermajority required to spend money from the rainy day fund in the current cycle.

On Monday, Senate Finance discussed an Ogden bill that would spend about $3 billion of rainy-day money on both the current deficit and the next two-year budget. Doing so requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers — which is the Senate’s normal threshold for bringing any bill to a floor vote.

But after a spirited argument of the state’s current predicament and the 2006 tax swap-school finance bill, Ogden delayed a vote on his bill, saying he could tell his colleagues weren’t ready.

Rep. Jim Pitts postponed a hearing in the House on the Rainy Day Fund after getting stood up by Perry’s office. While the consensus seems to be that the Senate will have the votes to be able to act on using the Rainy Day Fund, it’s a close shave in the House. As such, Peggy Fikac suggests that Democrats are trying to get a little leverage out of this.

Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said enough Republicans oppose the idea that Democratic support will be needed to reach 90 House votes.

“We’re going to make sure that our priorities are met,” he said. “And we’re going to make sure that we’re not taken for granted, but that we leverage to the extent possible a proper hearing of our priorities for the next two years.” Those priorities include health care for vulnerable Texans and education, he said.

One presumes that Democratic support for using the Rainy Day Fund was never in doubt. Given that, only 41 Republicans are needed to meet the 3/5 threshhold for spending RDF money on the 2010-11 biennium. I think that much is doable, based on the scattered reports of this Republican and that supporting RDF usage, but beyond that I’m not terribly optimistic.

Pitts endorses using at least some of the Rainy Day Fund

It’s a start.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the House’s lead budget writer, today filed bill that would draw down nearly $4.3 billion of rainy-day money to cover the state’s deficit in the current two-year cycle.

Pitts’ plan would tap a fund composed mostly of oil and natural gas tax revenues, though general revenue fund surpluses also make some contribution to the rainy day fund. Under a 1987 constitutional amendment, tapping the fund to plug holes in a current budget requires three-fifths approval of those present in each chamber. If everyone votes, that means at least 90 House members and 19 senators would have to consent. It’s only in writing the next two year budget that the higher threshold of two-thirds in each house is required.

If you look at House Bill 275, you see a proposed draw-down of $4,273,557,000 — the very same number Comptroller Susan Combs used last month in estimating the 2010-2011 deficit.

That number may wind up being smaller for the 2010-11 deficit, depending on the effect of earlier cuts and possible upward revisions in sales tax revenue. If so, it’ll be all the more to be available for the current biennium. Still not nearly enough, but every little bit less horrible helps.

Pitts’ bill for this is HB 275, which will require supermajority votes in each chamber. That would be a challenge under any circumstance, and will be even more of one given the teabaggers’ insistence on inflicting as much damage as possible on the state’s economy. Pitts hopes he has the votes, but I won’t be too sure till they’ve been cast. More rational folks like Scott McCown have pushed back on this, though I doubt his words will have much effect on those who believe that taking money out of the economy is good for it. Abby Rapoport has more.

Business leaders urged to oppose “cuts only” approach to the budget

Good luck with that.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby is helping lead an effort to rally Texas business leaders against what he calls a “catastrophic” cuts-only approach to balancing the state’s budget in the face of a massive shortfall, estimated at $15 billion to $27 billion over the next two years.

Hobby, a board member of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, and F. Scott McCown, the group’s executive director, say in a letter being sent today to the state’s hundreds of chambers of commerce that such an approach would undermine the state’s economic recovery, weaken education and leave vulnerable Texans unprotected. The center focuses on low- and moderate-income Texans.

“We simply can’t balance the budget through cuts alone without doing terrible damage to our economy and our future,” Hobby and McCown said in the letter.

They want business leaders to speak up for a “balanced approach” that includes spending the state’s rainy day fund savings account, which is expected to contain $9.4 billion; adding new revenue through such options as increasing alcohol or tobacco taxes; raising taxes on “sugar-loaded” drinks; eliminating “unwarranted” sales tax exemptions; or temporarily increasing the state’s sales tax rate.

You can read Hobby and McCown’s letter here I applaud them for this, and I wish them the very best of luck, but a couple of points. One, let’s not expect too much from the business community. They’re kinda sorta on board with this, but if you read their quotes in the story or listen to what they have to say here, they’re supportive in a very mush-mouthed kind of way. They’re okay with using the Rainy Day Fund – which is a big deal, don’t get me wrong – but not much beyond that. They don’t want to see education gutted, but they don’t want to pay for it, either.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, which has 220 local chambers as members, said his group opposes a cuts-only approach, although it doesn’t back spending the entire rainy day fund and doesn’t want new taxes. It favors keeping spending about the same over the next two years.

Well, we have $15 billion less to spend than we did two years ago, and the entire Rainy Day Fund would only cover 60% of that. How do you expect us to get there from here, Bill? This is likely to have as much effect on the debate as the business community’s pitiably weak opposition to anti-immigration legislation has had. I have more faith in the school superintendents.

The other point I’d make is that if I’d written the CPPP’s letter, I’d have stuck to the revenue ideas already on the table, which include reviewing the sales tax exemptions, fixing the business margins tax – yes, I know, even with this audience – the LBB recommendations, and expanded gambling. I would not have mentioned new things like the sugar tax or other extra sin taxes, since they’re extremely unlikely to get anywhere and might distract from the overall message. Just my opinion.

By the way, if anyone reading this still thinks that balancing the budget with cuts only is a good idea, here’s more evidence that you’re wrong.

State protective services chief Anne Heiligenstein dropped some bad news on Senate budget writers today: Her year-old push to redesign the payment system for foster care providers will be a non-starter if lawmakers approve proposed cuts that would effectively drive down rates by 12 percent.

Abused and neglected children with complex emotional and psychiatric problems often are ripped from their home communities in North Texas and shipped down I-45 to so-called “residential treatment centers” in the Houston area, Heiligenstein has said, saying she’d like to change that. An agreed-upon overhaul of rates and contracting would put a private provider in charge of a region, which would include a duty to make sure there are enough beds close to home.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who’s sponsoring the redesign bill, asked if efficiencies might be found that would allow the effort to go forward.

Not really, said Heiligenstein, head of the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees Child Protective Services.

“The presumption for being able to do this is that there would not be a rate roll-back,” she told the Senate Finance Committee. “We will not ask for an increase in foster care rates … , but we need what is currently invested in the system, plus normal caseload growth.”

Is that something you really want to support? BurkaBlog has more.

Some reactions to LBB recommendations

The Statesman asks around about three of the Legislative Budget Board recommendations for raising revenue. First, the suggestion to allow liquor sales on Sunday, which it projects would generate an extra $7.4 million. Not surprisingly, the liquor industry favors this, but some others don’t:

David Jabour, president of Austin-based Twin Liquors, said the demand wouldn’t be high enough to warrant another business day.

“Based on some analysis that we have done, it would actually simply spread the business over seven days,” Jabour said.

Jabour also said the guarantee of having Sundays off attracts higher quality employees.

Suzii Paynter, director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas — a group that opposes the expansion of alcohol availability — said the money raised by Sunday sales would be a drop in the bucket. By comparison, raising the tax on beer to a level similar to the tax on cigarettes would bring in nearly $700 million, she said.

I can’t address Jabour’s argument about Sunday sales cannibalizing other days’, but I will note that being allowed to open on Sunday doesn’t mean you have to be. As for Paynter, that isn’t actually an argument against. She’s right, higher taxes on beer would raise more money, but 1) there’s no way in hell that will happen, and 2) even if that were an option, there’s no reason you couldn’t allow Sunday liquor sales as well. It’s not an either-or choice.

Then there’s the recommendation of a fee on gas guzzlers:

Environment Texas director Luke Metzger said heavier gas-guzzlers tend to cause more wear and tear on roads.

“If the direction lawmakers are going is increased fees, that’s one fee that certainly makes sense — as a way to recoup from the damages they cause and to encourage the production of more environmentally friendly vehicles,” Metzger said.

Metzger said his group would prefer that lawmakers “take on some of the biggest polluters with direct taxes on the industries themselves, rather than regular Texans. But this is a reasonable next-best policy we could hope for.”

Yeah. Too bad this will never happen, because I think it’s a great idea, too. I just can’t see anyone on the Republican side touching it with a ten foot pole.

Finally, there’s suspending the sales tax holiday:

Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans, said the holiday was originally intended to help lower-income families. But most of the savings actually go to higher income families that can afford to purchase a full year’s worth of school supplies and clothing tax-free, he said.

Lavine said the cost to the state is not worth keeping a holiday that doesn’t help families that already carry a disproportionate share of the burden of the sales tax.

He said the additional revenue “could make a large difference in any of the programs that are being threatened with cutbacks or being shut down.”

I must admit, I hadn’t thought of it that way. This perspective makes me a lot more favorable to the idea. But as with the gas guzzler surcharge, I have a hard time seeing it get passed. In another year, with a different legislature, maybe. Not this time.

We have a number for the hole

There’s actually more than one number that can be used to accurately describe the state budget deficit, depending on what your perspective is, but however you look at it, it’s big and it’s no longer projected or theoretical.

State Comptroller Susan Combs today said lawmakers will have $72.2 billion available to spend in general revenue over the next two years — nearly $15 billion less than they budgeted in the current period.

Combs’ official revenue estimate sets the limit for how much lawmakers can budget for state services.

Her estimate puts the shortfall in the amount needed to continue the current level of services – taking into account such items as population growth – at least at $27 billion, according to figures from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which focuses on low- and moderate-income Texans.

[…]

Looking at state agency funding requests, the Center for Public Policy Priorities found that the state will need at least $99 billion in general revenue through the next two-year budget period, on top of closing a shortfall in tax collections in the current budget period.

Combs’ estimate includes a prediction that tax collections will fall $4.3 billion short in this budget period. Combs’ $72.2 billion figure takes that shortfall into account.

In addition to having to meet that recession-driven shortfall, lawmakers will be working without two sources of funding that they had last time they met: unspent state fund balances and federal stimulus money.

First things first: The $4.3 billion figure refers to the 2009 biennium budget. The amount of revenue that Combs estimated at that time for the two-year period was short of what we actually collected, so the first order of business will be to appropriate money to make up that gap. How big the hole is for this biennium then becomes a matter of opinion based on how much you think the state needs to spend to pay for what it does now.

Lawmakers budgeted $87 billion in general revenue spending in the current biennium; at least $6.4 billion of that money came from federal stimulus funds which aren’t available to budget-writers this time. Public and higher education and health and human services spending accounted for $73 billion of that; without the stimulus money, that leaves just over $7 billion that’s not in those two major categories.

The comptroller’s official biennial revenue estimate sets the limit, effectively, on what lawmakers have available to spend during the two-year period that will begin in September. There’s a shortfall between what’s available and what’s needed, but estimates of the size of that shortfall depend on the size of what’s needed. For instance, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a think tank that advocates for the poor, estimates it would cost $99 billion over the next two years to maintain the services the state provides now; they put the size of the shortfall at about $27 billion. Former Appropriations Chairman Talmadge Heflin, now with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that advocates for small government and free markets, estimates the shortfall at “$15 or $16 billion.”

In other words, the slash-and-burn TPPF is basing the shortfall on Texas not spending any more than it did two years ago. Thing is, Texas is a growing state – you might have heard about those four shiny new Congressional seats we’re going to get because we’ve been growing like gangbusters – and with all that growth comes added expenses. Much of the state’s increased population comes from children, which means we need to spend more on schools just to keep up. A lot of it comes from lower-income folks, which means things like Medicaid and CHIP need more revenue to keep up. That’s the reality of the situation, and it’s what the Lege will have to deal with.

Now the good news is that after more than a year of declining sales tax revenue, economic indicators are pointing in the right direction again. The next two years will be better for the state, and who knows, maybe in 2013 we’ll hear that this biennium’s budget came in under cost because we took in more money than we initially thought we would. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the system we have in place now isn’t equipped to keep up with the state’s growth. Too many things are exempt from the sales tax. The property tax cut of 2006 created a structural deficit. We’re going to face many of the same problems in two years’ time even if the economy recovers to a large degree. In the meantime, we’ll be shortchanging schoolchildren and pushing the sick and the needy onto local governments.

Finally, it must be said that Combs’ figures, which you can see in detail here, stand in stark contrast to the denial and Pollyanna-ism that Rick Perry displayed all last year, as Greg and ThinkProgress document and BOR pointed out before the election. He can’t hide from it any more. For more, see statements from Rep. Mike Villarreal, Rep. Lon Burnam, and Sen. Wendy Davis; Vince has more as well.

Please use the Rainy Day Fund

I don’t have any faith that those who need to hear this are listening, but as the 82nd Lege gets gaveled in today, it still needs to be said.

A coalition of progressive organizations from throughout Texas called for “a balanced approach to a balanced budget” at a Capitol press conference Wednesday. The groups’ challenge comes less than a week from the beginning of the legislative session Tuesday.

Members of Texas Forward urged lawmakers to resist steep cuts to education and social services as the Legislature attempts to close a budget shortfall projected as high as $24 billion.

“The cuts coming down the pike are not about cutting the fat; there is no more fat,” said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “What we’re looking at is actually cutting into muscle, and this is the muscle that is key to the infrastructure of Texas.”

Organizers called for the Legislature to close the budget gap using all the money from the state’s “rainy day fund,” a sum estimated at $9.6 billion, as well as finding additional revenue sources, maximizing available federal funding and making “carefully considered cuts” to existing services.

Some of the folks in this effort wrote an op-ed in the Statesman outlining their preferred approach in late December. Again, I agree with them entirely, but that ain’t the Lege we’ve got. I hope I’m being needlessly pessimistic, and I’ll be glad to be proven wrong, but I don’t expect that.

Medicaid: Ideologues versus experts

The fascinating thing in this story about the Republican plan to kill Medicaid is just how half-baked the idea is.

GOP Gov. Rick Perry, fresh off a big re-election win and touting his new book on states’ rights, is among those who say it’s a good idea. The election results — which included a huge haul of state House seats for Republicans — have left some Capitol watchers wondering whether they should take seriously an idea that might have been immediately discarded in the past.

Never mind that no state has ever ditched Medicaid. Or that the federal government typically kicks in about 6 of every 10 dollars spent on the health care program in Texas.

Medicaid pays for more than half of all births and chips in for the care of nearly two-thirds of all nursing home residents in the state. And top medical industry officials say opting out of Medicaid would cripple the state’s health care system and hurt the economy.

The opt-out idea surfaced nearly a year ago in a memo by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

[…]

Perry hasn’t laid out details of how he envisions that opting out would work. A spokeswoman for the governor, Lucy Nashed , said that “these discussions are just beginning and will continue as we move into the legislative session.”

[…]

Arlene Wohlgemuth , executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation — the think tank to which Perry is donating the proceeds from his new book — is working on a proposal that would be an alternative to Medicaid.

Wohlgemuth, a former state lawmaker, is not proposing forgoing the federal funds because they’re Texas taxpayers’ dollars, too. She wants to use them in a different way.

“Medicaid is an unsustainable program,” Wohlgemuth said. “We have got to find a better way to deliver care to the people that need care.”

She declined to be specific, though she did say that options could exist through a totally new system, or through waivers or block grants that could give the state freedom to run the program as it sees fit.

But Anne Dunkelberg , associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities , which advocates for low-income Texans, said that “those aren’t options under law.” She said that there are no block grant options for Medicaid and that “there’s certainly not any new waiver ability that gets us out of the fact that health care is expensive.”

Perry frequently talks about a Medicaid waiver he proposed in 2007 that he says is languishing in Washington. His program would have redirected some federal Medicaid dollars into a pool to pay for health insurance subsidies for uninsured, low-income adults.

But the George W. Bush administration had concerns about the proposed limits on benefits and asked for a revision, which Texas has not submitted.

Though Perry’s proposal is technically still pending, Goodman said it would need to be revised “if the Medicaid expansion is implemented” as required by the federal health reform law.

Does anybody see a serious proposal on the horizon here, one that addresses the needs that Medicaid and CHIP currently handle while actually saving the state money? Or like me do you see an ideological wish list item that provides “savings” by simply ignoring a need and pretending that doing so doesn’t have its own costs, which may dwarf the alleged “savings” that are being touted? I have the same question for the medical establishment, which has largely been in bed with the Republican Party that is now threatening to do it serious damage with this proposal, that I have for the business interests that claim to be concerned about anti-immigrant legislation: Are you going to actively fight this, up to and including putting resources into defeating the legislators that will be working against your interests here, or are you just going to pay this all lip service because you care more about your other pet causes than you do about this? It’s put up or shut up time.

How much do kids count?

In Texas, the answer is not much at all.

Between 2000 and 2008, the number of Texas kids living in poverty grew by 240,000, accounting for 23 percent of the total child population. The national child poverty rate is 18 percent. [Frances Deviney, president of the Texas KIDS Count branch housed at the Center for Public Policy Priorities] also said Texas ranks last in child food insecurity, meaning 1.6 million Texas children don’t know where their next meal will come from. According to the 2006-08 survey conducted by the KIDS Count data center, hungry children are more likely to miss school, be less attentive in class, and fail or drop out of school.

Other key indicators for Texas kids:

—Low birthweight babies have increased in Texas by 17 percent since 2000.

—Infant mortality has spiked by 11 percent since 2000.

—The number of children with special health or medical needs has jumped by 42 percent since 2001.

—Economically disadvantaged children are more likely to fail the TAKS test.

—About 72 percent of Texas fourth graders are not proficient in reading, putting Texas in the bottom quarter of reading proficiency.

During this time, we’ve created a multibillion dollar structural deficit by irresponsibly cutting property taxes, thrown hundreds of thousands of kids off of CHIP, and frozen allocations for school districts at 2006 levels. That’s even before we deal with the current budget shortfall and the fanatical desire among Republican base voters to ensure people remain uninsured. Yeah, we pretty much don’t give a crap about kids in this state. BOR has more.