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Texas Public Policy Foundation

Too many people don’t get sick leave

From the CPPP:

All Texans should be able to care for themselves or a loved one if they get sick, regardless of what kind of job they do or how much they earn. Approximately 4.3 million Texas workers – or 40 percent of the total workforce – lack access to paid sick days, and it’s estimated that between 39 and 44 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. are not able to earn paid sick days.

Paid sick days are also a public health issue. When people are forced to go to work sick, everyone—employers, coworkers, and customers—is worse off. Children also face the consequences when their classmates come to school sick because their parents can’t afford to take the day off to care for them. Texas public employers, cities, and our state should work to implement paid sick days policies, which will improve the financial stability and health of all Texans.

Our new policy brief examines the inadequate access to paid sick days in Texas and highlights how businesses and families can thrive when workers are able to earn paid sick days. Across the country, there is growing momentum and support for city, county, and statewide paid sick days policies, which require employers to provide a certain number of paid sick days to workers each year based on the number of hours worked. To date, 44 cities, counties, states, and Washington, D.C. have passed paid sick days policies.

Everyone gets sick, and everyone should have the ability to earn paid sick days. A multi-city or statewide policy would ensure a high-quality standard so that all workers are able to care for themselves or a family member.

You can read the report here. I agree with this of course, as a matter of public health and of basic humanity, but as we know we live in a state where the business interests and Republican elected officials vehemently oppose the idea. The city of Austin has passed an ordinance to require sick leave, and the city of Dallas is poised to vote on a similar measure, but neither of those will matter if the current lawsuit or the sure-to-come legislation to preempt such ordinances succeed. You know what I’m going to say before I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway: Nothing will change until we change who we elect. If you’re fine with being surrounded by sick people in the course of your daily life, then keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you might consider fighting for something better.

Of course Ken Paxton opposes the sick leave ordinance

He wouldn’t be Ken Paxton if he didn’t.

Best mugshot ever

Less than a week after a conservative think tank sued Austin over the city’s paid sick leave ordinance, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has thrown the state’s support behind the suit, calling the ordinance “unlawful.”

According to a statement, Paxton filed court papers with a Texas state district court in Travis County on Tuesday. He argues in the filing that setting the minimum wage, which includes the minimum amount of paid time off, is a decision strictly entrusted to the Texas Legislature.

“The Austin City Council’s disdain and blatant disregard for the rule of law is an attempt to unlawfully and inappropriately usurp the authority of the state lawmakers chosen by Texas voters and must be stopped,” said Paxton, a Republican.

Paxton said the Texas Minimum Wage Act enacted by the Legislature was a “single, uniform policy for the entire state” — and made no requirement of employers to provide paid time off. He also said the law prevents cities from passing a different rule because they disagree with the state law.

See here for the background. Seems to me Paxton’s assertions are matters for the court to decide, but whatever. No one has ever accused Ken Paxton of being a towering legal intellect. The courts are gonna decide what they decide, but if this is a fine point of state law, then I would just note that state law can be changed. That will require a wholesale change of state lawmakers, but it would accomplish the task. Whatever the courts do say, in the end we have the power to make the law say something else. The Observer has more.

Why do business groups want to force sick people to go to work?

This is bad for society.

The city’s new ordinance mandating that most private businesses in Austin provide paid sick leave to employees — heralded by supporters as the most progressive labor policy in Texas when it won approval two months ago — is facing a legal challenge to prevent it from ever taking effect.

Proponents of Austin’s sick-leave rules, which are slated to begin Oct. 1, already faced the likelihood that some conservative state lawmakers would try to supersede the city’s authority by filing bills to overturn the new ordinance when the Legislature convenes again in January.

But a coalition of business organizations, including the Texas Association of Business and the National Federation of Independent Business, are aiming to render the rules toothless regardless. The group — with legal representation from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank — filed a lawsuit in Travis County state District Court on Tuesday, seeking temporary and permanent injunctions against city enforcement.

“We needed to move quickly and stop any bleeding that might occur from this ordinance,” said Jeff Moseley, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, which is the state’s most powerful business lobbying group. “It’s overreaching (by the city government), and it’s hard-hitting to small employers.”

Work Strong Austin, an activist group that supported the ordinance, called the lawsuit frivolous and said the business groups involved in it are “seeking to undermine the democratic process and take away this basic human right and public health protection right from 223,000 working families” in the city.

The ordinance requires that most private Austin employers give each worker up to 64 hours — or eight full eight-hour workdays — of paid sick leave per year. Small businesses with 15 or fewer employees are required to meet a lower cap of 48 hours of paid sick leave per year, or six workdays.

I’m going to let Ed Sills, in his email newsletter from Wednesday, break this one down:

The public policy rationales are solid as a rock. The public health argument alone should resonate for everyone. Who wants flu victims preparing food at a restaurant because they can’t afford to sit out an illness? Who wants to sit next to someone on a bus if they have a cold?

The arguments in the lawsuit are frivolous and fatuous. TPPF is saying the ordinance violates the state’s prohibition on local minimum wage increases because paid sick leave is a form of a wage increase. That is utter nonsense.

If a benefit like paid sick leave counted toward fulfilling the minimum wage, employers right and left would pay less than $7.25 an hour and count the value of benefits they already offer toward the wage floor. Employers know they would be laughed out of court and roasted in the court of public opinion if they tried that.

The other “big idea” from TPPF is something called “substantive due process,” and therein lies a danger. Substantive due process reasoning was used by some judges in the first few decades of the 20th Century to strike down minimum wage, maximum hour and other laws. Unlike procedural due process, which guarantees fair trials and other safeguards that enable people in our legal system to make their cases, “substantive due process” was historically a card for employers to play when they didn’t like laws enacted by majorities to protect working people.

The U.S. Supreme Court occasionally recognized substantive due process, and a few examples are instructive. In 1905, the high court overturned a New York law limiting bakery employees to 60 hour a week. In 1923, the high court struck down minimum-wage laws using substantive due process analysis. In 1925, the court struck down laws banning “yellow-dog contracts” that required employees to agree not to join a labor union (this was in the pre-National Labor Relations Act days).

A changing majority on the Supreme Court during the Franklin Roosevelt era eventually flushed away substantive due process. By 1955, a unanimous court declared in Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma, “The day is gone when this Court uses the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state laws, regulatory of business and industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought.” The law upheld in the case was a state requirement that eyeglasses be fitted and duplicated by licensed optometrists or ophthalmologists.

The law is on the side of the paid sick leave ordinance, but the infection of the law by politics may be a different story. I would not bet my house, my car or even my fidget spinner that the Texas Supreme Court would uphold a paid sick leave ordinance. The high civil court is a haven for the business community in Texas. Moreover, Gov. Greg Abbott and elements of the Texas Legislature will take a shot at the ordinance – and potentially at ordinances that voters in San Antonio and Dallas might be considering in November – in the next legislative session.

One argument the business community will make to overturn Austin’s ordinance, and to preempt other cities from following suit, is that it’s just too hard on businesses that operate statewide to comply with different rules in different cities. (As if the more-than-statewide businesses don’t already have to do that outside Texas.) But fine, if that’s the problem, then pass a sick leave law at the state level, or even better in Congress. Sick people should be home getting better and not infecting everyone around them, so take away the economic incentive for them to drag their contagious selves to work. I do not understand the argument against that. KUT and Fox 7 Austin have more.

Galveston wants a bag ban

Good luck.

Reacting to a groundswell of concern about the effect of plastic bags on the environment, Galveston is on the forefront of a statewide controversy over cities’ ability to ban plastic bags that are killing turtles, birds and fouling beaches.

A proposed ordinance with unanimous City Council support and strong community backing faces fierce opposition from outside forces, including conservative think tanks and plastic bag manufacturers who have already sent threatening letters.

[…]

Not all businesses support the ban, but it has the backing of the influential Galveston Hotel and Lodging Association. “As business operators we typically don’t like this type of business regulation,” said Steve Cunningham, association president and manager of the Hotel Galvez. “But being on the Gulf, this one is necessary because of the damage to the wildlife and the environment.”

City Attorney Don Glywasky drafted the Galveston ordinance to avoid the legal pitfalls encountered by cities such as Laredo. The Laredo bag ban was challenged under the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal law that bars local governments from adopting regulations to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

Glywasky believes Galveston is unique. “I don’t really see that this is a solid waste management issue,” he said. “If we can cut down on some of the plastic bags that go into the marine environment, that is not something for the purpose of solid waste, it is for the protection of the marine environment on which we depend.”

That argument drew no sympathy from an influential conservative organization, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. James Quintero, director of the foundation’s Center for Local Governance and Think Local Liberty, said Galveston’s proposed ordinance conflicts with state law.

“Our position would be that Galveston’s ordinance, no matter what the stated reason would be, is still prohibiting containers,” said Bryan Mathew, policy analyst for Texas Public Policy Foundation. “In our view, a lot of local governments have been attempting to regulate out of bounds by hiding under the term of local control.”

Mathew called anything that smacks of what Gov. Greg Abbott lamented were attempts to make Texas more like California “out of bounds.”

“Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it,” Abbott said last year during remarks at a Public Policy Foundation gathering, where he warned of “a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

That erosion would include anything that hinders “people from being able to sell and buy with minimal government regulation and a low tax burden,” Mathew said.

Mathew saw no contradiction with the traditional conservative support for local control, arguing that local control refers to legislatures, not local governments.

“Utter hogwash,” said Zach Trahan, spokesman for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “They made it up this last year to justify their abandonment of local control.”

Yeah, let’s be clear that the “conservative” principle at work here is “because we said so”. Local control is great up to the point where localities do things that displeases authoritarians like Greg Abbott and the TPPF, thus requiring they be brought to heel. I think Galveston has perfectly good reasons for wanting to regulate plastic bags, but the court ruling against Laredo’s bag ordinance does not bode well for its future.

Paxton sues Brownsville over bag fee

Of course he does.

plastic-bag

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is wading into another fight over local control; this one about plastic bags at grocery stores.

The Republican on Wednesday sued the city of Brownsville over its $1 per-bag fee, started in 2011 to cut down on waste, calling it an “illegal sales tax.”

“Clearly, Brownsville is raising taxes on its citizens through this unlawful bag fee,” Paxton said in a statement. “The rule of law must be upheld, and state law is clear – bags may not be taxed.”

[…]

The lawsuit, filed in Cameron County, is Paxton’s first attempt to thwart city efforts to curb waste by charging for bags or banning them. He joins the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the powerful conservative group, in that broad effort.

The Brownsville bag fee was passed in 2011, but Paxton is only getting involved now that an appeals court has overturned Laredo’s bag law. You would think that since cities are responsible for garbage collection that cities ought to have a fair amount of leeway to take measures to minimize and optimize that task, but then you would not be Ken Paxton or his meddling enablers at the TPPF. Why is a fee for plastic bags different than a fee for (say) heavy trash pickup or disposal of toxic chemicals? I’m pretty sure the answer to that question will be “it just is” and “because we said so”. If we want different outcomes, we need different leaders.

Plastic bag litigation update

This could be a big deal.

plastic-bag

Is a plastic bag a container? Does the definition of “solid waste management” include litter control?

If a state appeals court answers yes to both of those questions, regulations on plastic bags in several Texas cities — including Austin, Fort Stockton, and Port Aransas, which ban the bags, and Brownsville, which requires businesses to charge customers a $1 fee for the bags — could be in danger.

The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio heard oral arguments Tuesday in Laredo Merchants Association v. City of Laredo, in which the merchants claim the city’s ban on single-use bags is illegal because existing state law regulating solid waste disposal preempts it.

The law in question is a small piece of Texas’ Health and Safety Code. Section 361.0961, passed into law by the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal Act, says that local governments can’t adopt regulation to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Arguments on Tuesday focused on the definitions of several phrases in the law, especially “container or package” and “solid waste management,” and what, precisely, the Legislature had intended.

The merchants’ case is the first challenge to a Texas municipality’s bag ordinance to make it to court. The Texas Retailers Association filed a suit against Austin’s bag ban in 2013 but later withdrew its petition, and Dallas repealed its bag fee after plastic bag manufacturers sued last year.

The Laredo merchants sued the city in March 2015, and appealed to the Fourth Court after the 341st Judicial District Court in Webb County sided with the city last June. A victory for the merchants could mean the overturning of local bag regulations across the state, while a win for Laredo could encourage other cities to pass regulations of their own.

[…]

On its face, the case is a fight over flimsy pieces of plastic. But the series of amicus briefs filed on each side establish that a much weightier issue is at stake: How much power do local governments have to establish regulations that affect commerce? Three Texas state senators and 17 state representatives, all Republicans, filed an amicus brief last week in support of the merchants, arguing, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, that state law preempts the bag ban. The Texas Municipal League filed a brief in support of the city. Executive director Bennett Sandlin told the Tribune that the bag issue is one where local control is particularly important because different cities have different environmental concerns; Fort Stockton, for example, cited cattle deaths from ingesting plastic as a reason for the bag ban.

The implications of the local control dispute go beyond plastic bags and extend to ridesharing, energy, rent control, and other areas where municipalities have sought to pass stringent regulations. Last May, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 40, which limited local regulation of drilling activities after Denton voted to ban hydraulic fracking in the city. Recently, legislators have vowed to address local rules on ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft.

“We’ve got a Legislature that used to believe in local control and now, some of them, all they believe is control of the locals,” Sandlin said. “We’re facing it not just in plastic bags but any number of issues.”

You can say that again. I’ve blogged a bunch about plastic bags, but this lawsuit had escaped my notice till now. I fully expect the issue to be on the agenda for the Lege in 2017 no matter what happens here. It’s not that Texas Republicans love regulating individual behavior, it’s that they do not recognize as legitimate any form of governance that does things they don’t approve of. They sue the feds, and now the cities are squarely in their sights. Look at the words of two-bit authoritarians like Sen. Don Huffines, who was quoted again in this story, and ask yourself whatever happened to the Republican brand of “small government”. Whatever else these guys are now, that ain’t it.

Lawsuit filed in Austin over short-term rental ordinance

Geez.

The gig economy — specifically, the short-term rental industry that includes HomeAway, Airbnb, and VRBO — is under attack by the city of Austin, Texas, according to a lawsuit filed in state court June 20, which was sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue an injunction halting the enforcement of an Austin city ordinance, which became effective March and governs short-term rentals.

The seven plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are people who either have sought to stay in short-term rental properties or to ease their residential properties for less than 30-day periods.

Neither the short-term tenants nor their landlords engage in any activities that should cause them to lose their rights to privacy and to assemble freely, according to Robert Henneke, general counsel for the Center for the American Future at TPPF.

But the lawsuit alleges that Austin’s short-term rental ordinance violates precisely those rights of the tenants and landlords.

Specifically, the ordinance bars the gathering of more than 10 people inside the short-term rentals and more than six in the front or backyards of the homes. It also limits to sleeping or “any joint activities” in the homes after 10 p.m.

The ordinance also requires the landlords and tenants to permit law enforcement officers into their homes to “enter, examine, and survey, at all reasonable times, all buildings, dwelling units, guest rooms, and premises,” even if the officers don’t present a search warrant.

The ordinance represents part of a trend that allows for the “Californization” of the central Texas city or a region where more government regulation, rather than less, is the norm, said James Quintero, director of the Center for Local Governance at TPPF.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here, via the Austin Business Journal, which also provides some info about the rental ban, which passed in February. I know nothing about this saga, but I do know that aside from a few stray criminal justice issues, the TPPF is wrong about pretty much everything, in particular matters relating to government regulation. Which doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t prevail in court, of course, just that one should never expect them to be on the side of the greater good. The state of Texas does not currently play a role in regulating short-term rentals. Given this action, I won’t be surprised to see some kind of statewide AirBnB bill pushed in the next legislative session, in the same way that a statewide Uber/Lyft bill is being touted; the TPPF name-checked Uber and Lyft in their statement, so you can see how that will play out. The Statesman has more if you have access to their premium content.

From the “Those that disregard history are doomed to repeat it” department

This is the state of environment protection in Texas.

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Texas’ top environmental regulator suggested Thursday that the state may ignore a proposed directive from the Obama administration in June to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

“I’m concerned that if this is not contested, if we don’t dispute this, if we don’t win, the implications … are only the camel’s nose under the tent,” Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said at an event in the Texas Capitol sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The last time Texas refused to follow federal environmental rules, there were unintended consequences that caused a slow-down of the permitting process that prompted the energy industry to cry foul after losing millions of dollars.

About 150 people attended the event Thursday to hear Shaw and two other panelists speak about the proposal from the Obama administration, which could require Texas to reduce its carbon emissions from power plants by close to 200 billion pounds in the next two decades.

The general consensus among both the panelists and the audience was that the state should sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the rules if they are finalized, and should refuse to follow them. Karen Lugo, director of TPPF’s Center for Tenth Amendment Action, said she is working with state lawmakers on legislation affirming that Texas should ignore the rules unless Congress acts on climate change legislation, which it has never done.

The last time Texas regulators refused to implement federal environmental rules, lawmakers ended up reversing the decision. In 2010, the Obama administration started requiring companies that wanted to build new industrial plants to get “greenhouse gas permits” before beginning construction. When the TCEQ refused, the EPA had to take over, causing delays for some companies that lasted up to two years.

The result was legislation — supported by Koch Industries and the Texas Conservative Coalition, among others — that explicitly gave the TCEQ authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions so that companies could get their permits quicker.

Asked whether Texas could avoid the same result this time around, Shaw acknowledged that the delays did cause some “economic development costs.” But he said the costs would have been greater had Texas acquiesced to what state regulators say is federal overreach.

“I think those costs were smaller … than not making a principled stand,” Shaw said.

Remember, that’s the guy who’s in charge of the agency that is supposed to enforce environmental regulations in Texas. You will note that nowhere in the story – or really, any story involving people like Bryan Shaw and the TPPF chuckleheads – is there any concern expressed about the cost of not enforcing these regulations on people. I assure you, that is not an oversight. There’s only one cost taken into consideration, and it isn’t about you or me.

The people who signed up for insurance via Obamacare got themselves a pretty good deal

It worked the way it was supposed to work, in other words.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Texans who received financial assistance to purchase health coverage through the federal insurance exchange are paying less in monthly premiums than individuals in most other states using that online marketplace, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Texas, like dozens of other states with Republican leadership, declined to create its own state-based insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, relying on a federally managed marketplace instead.

Texans who receive tax credits to help them purchase health coverage through the federal marketplace pay $72 on average in monthly premiums for their plans — the seventh-lowest monthly premium among the 36 states using the federal marketplace.

The national average for subsidized enrollees in the federal marketplace is $82 a month, with individuals in states like New Mexico, Wyoming and New Jersey paying more than $100 a month on average.

[…]

On average, subsidized enrollees — who make up 84 percent of Texans who purchased coverage through the federal marketplace — have received $233 in monthly tax credits in Texas.

You can see the report here – the breakdown of subsidy amounts by state is on page 23. There are still things that need to be fixed with Obamacare, as with any large new program, but they’re all doable given a non-insane Congress and some time. The best news so far is that premium increases will be modest for next year, and more insurers want in. As Kevin Drum says, it’s time to acknowledge that it’s working pretty well overall.

Not that this will make any of the usual suspects shut up already, of course.

Opponents of the health reform law have attributed low overall enrollment rates to the fact that low premiums often mean high deductibles. Despite the subsidies offered by the federal government, Texas’ total enrollment numbers have not made a big dent in the state’s sky-high rate of uninsured.

John Davidson, a health policy analyst at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, has said that Texans’ reluctance to purchase insurance through the marketplace in bigger numbers stems from the cost of the health plans, even subsidized ones.

He added that individuals are also apprehensive about accepting the subsidies because they might be faced with paying them back if their annual income increases.

I look forward to the day when a story about Obamacare can be written without reporters feeling compelled to include some “on the other hand” quotes by shills like John Davidson. He has no useful insights or criticisms to offer, he’s just here for the FUD. If you must quote a hack like Davidson, then the least you should do is make it clear that his objections have nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with plain old politics. Matt Yglesias lays out what the argument really is.

One of America’s political parties doesn’t like that idea in any non-health context and they don’t like it for health care either. They think the money it costs to provide those subsidies should be taken away, and it should be given to high-income households in the form of tax cuts.

This is an excellent and important policy debate to have. One of the great ideological issues not just of our time and place, but of democratic politics across eras and countries. Should economic resources be distributed more equally or less equally?

But thus far to an amazing extent we haven’t been having that debate. Instead we’ve been having a debate over whether Obamacare works, over death panels, over enrollment numbers, over income verification procedures, and over the minutia of premiums and payments. It’s time to put that debate behind us. It’s clear — as it always should have been — that if you offer people large subsidies to go buy health insurance, lots of people will happily take the money and go buy some health insurance.

It’s time to start debating the real issue: should we do that, or is it more important to keep taxes on high-earners low than to give low-earners comprehensive health insurance?

So to be clear, John Davidson and his overlords absolutely support cutting their taxes so they don’t have to help pay for anyone to get health insurance. That’s what you should read when you see someone like him quoted in one of these stories.

Once again, the cost of not expanding Medicaid

We are paying for Medicaid expansion, regardless of what our “leaders” want. The only question is whether we get a benefit from it, or if it all goes to other states.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

If Texas keeps refusing to enlarge Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the state will pass up a heap of money, a new study has found.

In 2022, the state would pass up federal money for Medicaid expansion equal to more than twice its haul that year in federal highway aid, according to researchers Sherry Glied and Stephanie Ma of New York University.

Texas would forfeit $9.6 billion of federal Medicaid matching funds in 2022. That’s one-fourth of what the federal government expects to spend on defense contracts in the state that year, the study said.

“No state that declines to expand the program is going to be fiscally better off because of it,” said Glied, a former Obama administration health planning official who is dean of NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Texas Republican leaders have resisted Medicaid expansion, saying federal rules are too rigid and state costs in future years would soar. GOP leaders predict that federal budget cuts and the Affordable Care Act’s rollout problems will force a rollback of the generous pledge of federal funding.

Last year, Texas took $17 billion in federal money for its $28 billion Medicaid program. It currently covers 3.6 million children, pregnant women, seniors and disabled Texans.

More than 1 million poor adults of working age would be added to the program by 2016 if Texas changed course and embraced expansion, according to the state Health and Human Services Commission.

You can see the study here. The usual suspect at the corporate-owned “think tank” TPPF make their usual blatherings about Medicaid being something they don’t like, but they never address two key facts. One is as noted above, that we’re paying for this one way or another, and it’s up to us whether we reap any benefit from it or if we just give it away to New York and California and so on. Two, we’re still paying for the health care of these folks one way or another, too. We pay for it in local taxes when they visit the ER for things that could have been treated more easily and efficiently if they could have done a routine doctor’s visit, and we pay for it in lost productivity and economic potential, especially for the children. Not that the sociopaths at the TPPF care, of course. But we are paying for it. We’re wasting a ton of money doing it the way we are now. We do it differently and get a huge benefit for not much more, and possibly even save a few bucks if we really do it right. Not as long as people listen to the TPPF, though.

Don’t believe anything the TPPF has to say about the Affordable Care Act

With the exception of some things they have to say about criminal justice, you shouldn’t believe anything the Texas Public Policy Foundation has to say, full stop. You especially shouldn’t believe anything they have to say about the Affordable Care Act.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Affordable Care Act will increase the average cost of insurance premiums, making health care less affordable for those Texans on whom the system financially depends, according to a report from a conservative think tank.

The report, released Monday by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says premiums for health insurance plans will increase for young, healthy Texans under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The health care law requires private insurers to cover essential health benefits and establishes a federal marketplace for insurers to sell coverage plans, among other requirements.

The report concludes that premiums will be on average “significantly higher than coverage available on the individual market in Texas prior to the ACA.” Nonetheless, it concedes that comparing pre- and post-ACA health care plans “presents some difficulties” because of the costs associated with mandating that health plans cover essential benefits, and because the impact on individuals will vary depending on age, gender, location and other factors.

As an example, the report highlights changes in premiums for catastrophic plans for young people living in metropolitan areas. Catastrophic plans have lower premiums than comprehensive plans but provide protection only from worst-case scenarios. John Davidson, the report’s author, said those plans are the most attractive to young, healthy Texans, and that they operate “the most like insurance” of any health care plan in the insurance marketplace.

“For a 27-year-old, non-smoking male in Austin, low-cost catastrophic plans on the exchange, which are available only to those under 30 or those with low incomes who qualify, will be on average 84 percent more expensive than pre-ACA catastrophic plans,” the report found.

There is, and there has been, a lot of misinformation about the Affordable Care Act, going back well before its passage in 2010. Some of that is due to bad or just credulous reporting, and some of it – a lot of it – is due to misinformation being propagated by opponents of the law. This falls into the latter category, in which cherry-picking of information is spun into a greater whole that is not at all the sum of its parts. Catastrophic plans are cheap because they don’t actually cover anything other than a catastrophe. Even the low-end “bronze” plans in the exchanges will likely cost more up front than catastrophic plans because they do provide coverage of things that even young and healthy people might need. It wouldn’t be hard to make up the cost of the increased premiums if one is a bit unlucky.

Beyond that, it’s important to remember that a cornerstone of the ACA is that people can no longer be denied coverage for “pre-existing conditions”, or for whatever other reason an insurer might not want to deal with you. Millions of people were routinely denied coverage pre-ACA. I know some of these people – they’re friends, family, classmates, neighbors. Maybe no one at the TPPF knows any of these people. More likely, they don’t care about them, since they’ve been working for years to prevent them from getting access to health care. That for sure goes way beyond the Obamacare debate – Texas didn’t become #1 in uninsured population overnight, after all.

“The success of the program is really contingent on young, healthy adults being able to broaden the risk pool and pay premiums to allow them to be more affordable for the older, sicker populations,” said David Gonzales, executive director of the Texas Association of Health Plans.

But Gonzales was hesitant to draw comparisons between pre- and post-ACA coverage. Asked whether rates had gone up, he said, “Unless you’re comparing apples and apples, it’s hard to really know.”

There’s no reason to expect a partisan outfit like the TPPF to take the care to ensure they are doing fair comparisons That’s not their mission. It is true that some people will wind up paying more under the ACA than before, for roughly equivalent coverage. Some of those people had been getting a huge break that the rest of us were paying for. I’m glad they’re paying more now. If the TPPF wants to advocate for them, that’s fine by me. Let’s all just be clear on what exactly it is they would like to see happen. Wonkblog and Better Texas Blog have more.

Texas really needs Obamacare

We’ve always known that Texas would be a huge beneficiary of the Affordable Care Act because of our huge volume of uninsured people, but this quantifies it in a way that really brings it home.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Texas is home to more than two-thirds of the nation’s 30 counties most in need of expanded health insurance coverage, according to a liberal group.

The Center for American Progress Action Fund ranked 22 Texas counties – including Dallas — as among the “30 worst” in the country, citing residents’ lack of insurance and poor health outcomes, such as heart attack deaths.

In a report released Thursday, the advocacy group said many Republican U.S. House members “are doing everything they can to torpedo” the federal health law despite having many constituents who would benefit from new state health marketplaces that will open on Oct. 1.

Dallas County, with 31 percent of residents uninsured, had the 14th-worst rate of health coverage among U.S. counties with more than 25,000 people, the report said.

Forty-five percent of Dallas County’s young adults — ages 18 to 39 – lacked insurance in 2011. Nine percent of all county residents have diabetes, which is a rate 13 percent higher than the national average, the group found. Nearly 15 of every 100,000 county residents die each year from stroke. That rate is 26 percent higher than the national average.

“There are just enormous human and economic inefficiencies from [having] a large number of uninsured persons in any county,” Tom Perriello, the group’s chief and a former Democratic congressman from Virginia, said in a media conference call.

While several of the Texas counties on the worst list are along the U.S.-Mexico border, the 22 were scattered in all regions of the state.

The report is here and the summary of it is here. What they did was rank the counties on six different factors:

  • Highest overall percentage of uninsured individuals under age 65
  • Highest percentage of uninsured women under age 65
  • Highest percentage of uninsured individuals ages 18 to 39
  • Highest percentage of uninsured young men
  • Highest percentage of uninsured people of color
  • Highest percentage of uninsured working-class individuals

The “bottom 30” list was then taken from the counties that did the worst overall on all six factors. Harris County scored among the worst on “Highest overall percentage of uninsured individuals” (#19, 29.9%); “Highest percentage of uninsured women under age 65” (#18, 28.8%); “Highest percentage of uninsured individuals ages 18 to 39” (#40, 43.1%); and “Highest percentage of uninsured working-class individuals” (#9, 34.2%), where that is defined as “individuals between 18 and 65 earning between 138% and 400% of the Federal Poverty Line”.

The good news is that despite the Republicans’ staunch refusal to do anything about this problem (with some honorable exceptions including county leaders and a few legislators like Rep. John Zerwas, who detailed his frustrations in this interview with the Observer that you should read), Texas will still get a great deal of benefit from the insurance exchanges. According to a report by the Society of Actuaries, Texas’ uninsured rate could drop from 27% to just under 15% if all eligible people take advantage of the exchange and the subsidies available to them; expanding Medicaid would have dropped that number to 10%, with the remainder basically being undocumented immigrants. This requires that people know about the exchanges and the subsidies, and fortunately there are various efforts underway to make that happen, since the state of Texas isn’t doing anything to help. If all goes reasonably well, many Texans could be a lot better off in another year.

Of course, there remain those who hope that nobody is any better off after the ACA kicks in.

Conservative analyst John Davidson of the free market-oriented Texas Public Policy Foundation said the liberal group – and writers of the federal law – ignore Census Bureau data showing that nearly 1 million of Texas’ 6 million uninsured residents make more than $75,000 a year.

“They have the means” to buy coverage, he said. “They don’t see the value in it.”

He said the Affordable Care Act’s success hinges on whether young, healthy adults will be prodded to buy coverage, which will “subsidize older, sicker people. Proponents of the law are going to be surprised how few young people are willing to take that deal,” Davidson said.

Yes, I’m sure that a privileged old guy like John Davidson knows exactly how people with whom he has nothing in common and for whom he has no empathy will behave. He’s just rooting for his preferred political outcome. Let’s see how good he is at making predictions after we get some data on this, shall we? Progress Texas, Health Zone, the Trib, and Kaiser Health News have more.

Even Rick Perry thinks the slash and burn crowd is nuts

Insert pithy quote about reaping and sowing here.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Our corndog spending is under control

Gov. Rick Perry shot back Monday at conservative critics who say the state budget is growing too fast, offering the clearest signal yet that he plans to sign the two-year, $197 billion appropriations bill into law.

The governor noted that he is still analyzing the legislation and wouldn’t commit to officially approving it, but he said the Legislature is meeting the challenges of a growing state in a fiscally responsible way.

“I did read some of the criticism, and I’m not sure that those who were making that criticism have a really good handle on the Texas budgeting process,” Perry told reporters. “Frankly I don’t understand their math.”

[…]

The budget plan, which passed a Legislature firmly in the hands of the GOP, has drawn fire from conservative voices in recent days. The director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, called the budget “an unwelcome departure from the guiding principles of fiscal responsibility.”

And The Wall Street Journal, in a weekend editorial titled “Texas Goes Sacramento,” called the budget reckless and urged Perry to veto most or all of it — or risk being compared to profligate California and Washington, D.C. Perry has line-item veto authority, so he still has time to pare down the spending before his weekend deadline to sign or reject legislation.

“Now Austin is borrowing from Washington’s playbook as the Lone Star State embarks on its biggest spending spree in memory,” the newspaper said.

Perry said detractors should not be counting the supplemental spending bill as part of the budgetary growth, because that legislation paid for billions of dollars in health care costs that had not been taken care of in the 2011 session.

Several Texas Republicans also defend one-time expenditures from the Rainy Day Fund. Legislators voted to take $4 billion from the account, largely to pay for water infrastructure upgrades and to phase out accounting tricks used in previous budgets.

“This state is growing and we’re growing fast, and we’re putting great pressure on infrastructure, both transportation, water, schools, and we have been meeting that challenge rather well,” Perry said.

The anti-spending zealots don’t care what the spending is on. There is only one budget category as far as they’re concerned, and that category is Spending. They want less of it, full stop. Rick Perry is well aware of this, and has freely used that language when the purpose has suited him. The fact that he is now at cross purposes with these marauders just shows how far out they are.

Also outraged, and with much greater justification since they did much of the heavy lifting, were Rep. Jim Pitts and Sen. Tommy Williams, the chairs of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees. I love this bit:

Williams said he and House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, sent a letter to the Journal disputing the facts behind the paper’s editorial. The Journal is expected to publish the letter in the coming days, according to Williams’ spokesman, Gary Scharrer.

The editorial claimed lawmakers increased spending 26 percent from the previous session, citing figures from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative group. Lawmakers have described TPPF’s figures as misleading and manipulative.

“I’ve got a bellyful of people that are using their organization to criticize the work that we do here so they can raise money to pay their own salaries,” Williams said, referring to TPPF.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, lawmakers approved a two-year budget that increases total spending by $7 billion, or 3.7 percent. State spending would increase $7.2 billion, or 8.3 percent.

Yes, the TPPF are a bunch of lying hacks – film at 11. Williams’ zinger is dead on. There’s no other organization in the state that funnels so much money to so many people with so little talent and so few useful skills. (Marc Levin, who does criminal justice policy for the TPPF, is an honorable exception.) You have to wonder how many of them could survive in the real world.

And then there’s this:

“We stand by our numbers, and are happy to explain them in-depth to anyone who wishes,” TPPF spokesman Joshua Treviño said Wednesday.

Josh, old buddy. How are things in Malaysia these days. If he tells you that two plus two is four, I’d advise asking him who’s paying him to say that.

Anyway. It’s hilarious seeing Perry getting slapped by these clowns, who are usually his bros – it’s basically the wingnut version of “Heathers”. It’s just a shame anyone takes them seriously in the first place. Texas Politics and EoW have more.

Water, water, not so fast

So much for that.

A major bill on the top of Gov. Rick Perry’s priority list that would authorize spending billions of dollars on state water projects faltered in the Texas House on Monday night after a contentious debate over where to pull the money from.

“My understanding is it’s doorknob dead,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, said after debate on the measure, which was backed by Speaker Joe Straus, was halted over a legislative technicality.

[…]

Ritter’s bill, House Bill 11, would have taken $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund — a multi-billion dollar reserve of mostly oil and gas taxes — and spent it on water-supply projects, in an effort to help the state withstand future droughts.

Another Ritter bill the House passed earlier this month, House Bill 4, would create a special fund to administer the money.

But HB 11’s backers faced an uphill battle to get enough votes, because drawing from the Rainy Day Fund requires a higher bar — 100 votes rather than the usual 76 votes — to pass.

Democrats’ objections were grounded in the argument that if the Rainy Day Fund gets used for water, it should also be raided for other purposes like public education. Some far-right conservatives, meanwhile, worried about drawing at all from the Rainy Day Fund, which they say should be reserved for emergencies.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, ultimately avoided a vote on HB 11 by raising a point of order, a legislative term for a procedural problem with the bill. Ritter said the bill in its current form is now dead; Perry has previously threatened to call a special session if lawmakers cannot find a way to fund water projects.

If lawmakers do not provide the funding, “I think we’re back in special session, but that’s above my paygrade,” Ritter said.

The Senate, meanwhile, has already passed a measure to move $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund into public education and water and transportation projects.

The House had previously passed a bill to create the fund, which the Senate has now also passed, but this was the bill to actually put money in the fund. The Senate also voted to tap the Rainy Day Fund for this and other purposes, but the House was the heavier lift. Bipartisan support was required, which meant as Burka noted that the House Democrats had leverage. He thinks they overplayed their hand, but the reason their support was so badly needed was because of ideological fractures on the GOP side.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to several of the state’s political leaders including Perry, announced Sunday it was opposed to the bill.

“The 83rd Texas Legislature has on hand more than $8 billion in new general revenue to pay for increased spending in areas like Medicaid, roads, water and education,” foundation president Brooke Rollins said. “But instead of setting priorities to make the new spending fit within available revenue, the Legislature appears ready to spend far more than this.”

In an unusual disagreement with the group, Perry made the case for a big one-time withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund for water projects in his op-ed. The governor, who considers himself a fiscal conservative, has made economic development his signature issue. And if water gets tight, he said businesses relocations to Texas would dry up.

“The good news is that current economic conditions and available balances in the Rainy Day Fund provide a unique opportunity for the state to partner with communities by offering financing to develop and implement new water supplies,” Perry wrote in support of a one-time transfer of $2 billion from the fund.

Asked about the split among conservatives, Rich Parsons, the governor’s spokesman, said: “We have infrastructure needs in the state that need to be met.” He added: “I think Texans recognize the need for action and expect state leaders to take action, and that’s precisely what the governor is doing.”

Hammond, of the Texas Association of Business, said Monday in support of HB 11: “I think the business community is pretty much united. … It’s necessary [because] unless we do something more than what we’re doing now, in 50 years demand will be up by about 22 percent and supply will be down by about 10 percent. That’s a disaster.”

“It’s already being used against us,” Hammond said, “that Texas is in a drought and they’re not doing anything about it.”

When Rick Perry and Bill Hammond are on the pragmatic, get-stuff-done side, you know how far off into the weeds the enforcers of “conservative” purity have gone. They opposed using the Rainy Day Fund because they oppose spending money – the purpose for the spending and the need it addresses don’t matter. Too many Republican legislators in the thrall of these hegemons, and this is the result.

So now what happens?

Even with the collapse of Ritter’s bill, there are other options. The Senate, which would rather put the politically difficult question before voters, has approved a resolution calling for constitutional amendments that would make available nearly $6 billion from the rainy day fund for transportation and water projects, as well as education.

Another possibility may be House Bill 19 by Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo. The bill would draw $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund for water and transportation projects.

“This issue is too important to leave its fate uncertain,” Perry said after the demise of HB 11. “I will work with lawmakers to ensure we address this need in a fiscally responsible manner.”

A special session is a possibility, since Perry has identified the water infrastructure fund as one of his top priorities. Also possible is the for the House budget negotiators to rip up everything they’ve done so far and appropriate the money from general revenue, which is what the slash-and-burn crowd is advocating. That would of course means however much money would then need to be taken away from everything else in the budget, which I don’t think the Senate will go along with. Some other bill may come to the rescue – where there’s a sufficiently broad caption, there’s a way. I think this is more likely to be a temporary setback than a “doornail dead” situation, but we’ll see. PDiddie, EoW, the Observer, and the TSTA have more.

TAB takes a hostage

Can’t say I’m surprised by this tactic.

Leaders in the business community said Wednesday that they would not stand for increased funding for education if it came with any rollback of accountability standards in Texas public schools.

“If we are going to remain competitive in the world’s market, we are going to have to have an educated workforce. We do not have one today,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business. “We will vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system unless and until we are certain that the current accountability system is going to be maintained.”

The Capitol news conference, held by the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, comes as the standardized testing that is the backbone of the state accountability system is facing considerable backlash from parents, educators and lawmakers.

[…]

Wednesday, members of the workforce coalition — which includes groups influential in the Legislature like the Texas Association of Business, Texas Institute for Education Reform, Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Business Leadership Council (formerly the Governor’s Business Council) — made clear they would not support any kind of tweaks to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. An attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler to do just that during the last legislative session failed with the opposition of the business community.

“Before this landmark piece of legislation, HB3, is even fully implemented, we have people who want to roll it back and go back to fight the old wars about teaching to the test and all these other myths that are out there,” said Jim Windham, chairman of Texas Institute for Education Reform.

They argued that the existing system is the only way to ensure taxpayers know their money is being well spent.

“STAAR testing is an excellent step towards ensuring that the state’s education dollars are being directed into the classroom so that college- and workforce-ready students emerge from Texas public schools,” said James Golsan, an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

To be blunt, these guys are full of it. The TPPF thinks we spend too much on education to begin with, and TAB is about as likely to support any measure that would actually increase revenue for education as Rick Perry is. Saying they’ll oppose an increase in funding for public education unless their demands are met is like Willie Sutton saying he’ll oppose the hiring of more police officers unless those pesky bank robbery laws get repealed.

On a more general note, I don’t understand the single-minded focus on the STAAR tests. Everyone wants accountability, and everyone wants students to graduate having received a good, comprehensive, useful education, but why in the world must we believe that STAAR tests are the only way to achieve that? I agree with this:

Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer whose daughter will be a sophomore at Anderson High School next fall, said she was offended by the insinuation that parents are being led around by superintendents.

“We are smart enough to see what that system is and is not doing and we can perfectly understand on our own that it is a badly flawed system that needs to be fixed,” said Majcher, who listened to the news conference at the Texas Capitol.

“I think it is inappropriate to hold public funding hostage to repairing the problems that we all know exist with the current testing system,” said Majcher, who is part of a new parent group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. “The testing system is badly implemented, badly flawed, there are a lot of groups, a lot of parents who are working very hard to make positive corrections to that. I would not call that rolling it back. I think when we see a mistake, we make a course correction.”

Exactly. We’ve been pushing various accountability measures for 20 years in Texas. Some have worked well, others not so much, but it’s been an ongoing experiment, with tweaks, adjustments, and changes of direction as needed. To believe that the STAAR and only the STAAR can achieve the goals these guys says they want is myopic and suggests they care more about the process than the result. Turns out, even some prominent Republicans see it that way, too.

Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken said Thursday that the state’s current public education accountability system is “broken and badly in need of fixing.”

During testimony at a hearing of the House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development on career and technology education, the former state GOP chairman expressed his disagreement with a coalition of business leaders and a conservative think tank that announced Wednesday it would oppose any additional funding to public education if there were any rollback of existing accountability standards.

Pauken, who along with two other commissioners oversees the development of the state’s workforce, said he was surprised that the coalition claimed to speak for the business community and conservatives as it defended the existing testing system.

He said he had found widespread agreement among business leaders, teachers, school district officials and community college representatives he had spoken to around the state that “teaching to the test is one of the real reasons that we have a significant skill trade shortage.”

Pauken said he spoke as both a businessman and a conservative when he criticized the position taken by the coalition.

“The current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students — rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test,” Pauken said, adding that a consequence of the system was that “‘real learning’ has been replaced by ‘test learning.’”

Hammond and his buddies are speaking in their own interest, not those of schools, students, or parents. We should not take their little tantrum seriously.

Two more ways to divert money from public schools

Number One: Taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

When the Georgia legislature passed a private school scholarship program in 2008, lawmakers promoted it as a way to give poor children the same education choices as the wealthy.

The program would be supported by donations to nonprofit scholarship groups, and Georgians who contributed would receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits, up to $2,500 a couple. The intent was that money otherwise due to the Georgia treasury — about $50 million a year — would be used instead to help needy students escape struggling public schools.

That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.

“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”

A handout circulated at the meeting instructed families to donate, qualify for a tax credit and then apply for a scholarship for their own children, many of whom were already attending the school.

“If a student has friends, relatives or even corporations that pay Georgia income tax, all of those people can make a donation to that child’s school,” added an official with a scholarship group working with the school.

The exchange at Gwinnett Christian Academy, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, is just one example of how scholarship programs have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.

Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.

While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade.

If this sounds a lot like vouchers to you, you’re right. It’s vouchers in a different package, done in a clever way to work around those pesky church-state obstacles. I haven’t seen this particular variant rear its head in Texas yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

That leads to Item Number Two: Virtual schools, which are operating here in Texas.

report released Tuesday by the liberal groupProgress Texas is adding another layer to the controversy over virtual schools, claiming that despite their popularity, the programs have failed Texas students and are run by businesses seeking profit.

“It’s a $24 billion industry with zero accountability,” Progress Texas executive director Matt Glazer said in a statement. “Virtual schools provide unregulated financial windfalls to a few insiders by shortchanging our children’s education.”

The Progress Texas findings come in response to a March report by  the conservative Austin think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supported virtual schools. The TPPF report claimed that virtual schools save money and can reduce drop-out rates because students who must drop out to work can take classes online whenever they have time. It said that virtual schools can also help students with special needs like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and physical disabilities.

In 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, made up of businesses and nearly 2,000 legislators, created a bill that supported online learning in classrooms and virtual schools. The measure initiated a wave of virtual schools across the country. In 2007, Texas approved Senate Bill 1788, similar to the ALEC model, which created a state-operated virtual school network and supported integrating online learning in Texas classrooms. Tax dollars help fund virtual schools, but businesses run them.

One of the only full-time virtual schools in the state, Texas Virtual Academy, was ranked academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency in 2009 and 2011, yet enrollment in the academy increased 3,203 percent in those years – from 254 students to 8,136, according to the Progress Texas report.

The report is here, and Progress Texas’ press release is here. ALEC was also a factor in the scholarship scam. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are. Read ’em both and keep your eyes open during the next legislative session. There’s a lot more to what’s going on with schools than just the nasty budget cuts from last year.

Just keep cutting till we tell you to stop

I have two things to say about this.

Now more than ever

Looking to get an early start on shaping budget discussions for the 2013 legislative session, the Texans for a Conservative Budget Coalition recommended Tuesday that lawmakers plan to reduce welfare spending, increase local control for public school districts, and consolidate or eliminate general revenue spending for several state agencies.

“The roadmap is very clear,” said Julie Drenner of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank and member of the coalition. “Government must prioritize spending on essential government functions only. When lawmakers look at questions, they must ask themselves only two questions: Do I reform it, or do I eliminate it?”

The coalition’s other members include the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and the Texas chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

[…]

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, said the coalition’s proposals would damage the state.

“This proposed policy-making agenda is a pending disaster in this state for women and men of all ages, including college students, minimum-wage workers, public schools, educators, and public servants,” she said. “We cannot expect to undercut essential state programs … and still expect Texas to thrive in the future.”

The coalition began during the 2011 legislative session and is based on the tenets that the Legislature should not raise taxes, increase spending or balance the budget using the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, or “Rainy Day” Fund.

It has reconvened now to address issues that are likely to develop as lawmakers create the 2014-15 state budget.

“The message we want to send with the revival of this coalition is, ‘That wasn’t the end,’” Joshua Treviño, the TPPF’s spokesman, said of the budget reductions in the 2011 session. “That was just a good start.”

1. This is basically the Paul Ryan Budget Plan for Texas. Protect a few things that the rich and powerful like, ensure those folks have to pay as little as possible, and cut the hell out of everything else. It has nothing to do with “priorities” or needs or anything else except lowering taxes for those who least like paying them. I guarantee you, every spending cut these guys would propose will be accompanied by an even larger revenue cut that will ensure the need for more of the same in the next budget. The goal is to exempt themselves from paying for anything.

2. Every Democrat needs to be talking about this. If it’s an election issue nationally (and it is), it’s an election issue here as well. According to Robert Miller, House Speaker Joe Straus is out there talking about “his priorities for the upcoming session as education, transportation infrastructure, water and positioning Texas for continued economic success while meeting the needs of a growing state” and that “Texas is a center-right state, it is not a far right state”. That’s not compatible with what these guys are saying, so either Straus doesn’t mean it, or these guys will attack him as a threat to their vision. Oh, wait, they already are. Straus may hold them off for now, but they’re not going to go away, and they are the direction the GOP is going. This is what Democrats need to be talking about. If the Republicans get into a high profile intra-party fight about it, so much the better, but it’s on us to make the case that they’re doing it wrong and we’re the better choice. A statement from Rep. Mike Villarreal that came out after this story appeared is beneath the fold, and EoW has more.

(more…)

Texas Watch on the Supreme Court

Texas Watch:

The Texas Supreme Court has a long history of favoring corporate defendants over families and small businesses, according to a decade-long review of the Court’s decision making by Court Watch, a project of the non-profit Texas Watch Foundation.

Court Watch reviewed the 624 cases involving consumers decided by the Court between 2000 and 2010. The report, “Thumbs on the Scale: A Retrospective of the Texas Supreme Court, 2000-2010”, finds that the state’s high court for civil matters “has marched in lock-step to consistently and overwhelmingly reward corporate defendants and the government at the expense of Texas families.”

“The Texas Supreme Court is an activist, results-oriented body that over the last 10 years has developed into a safe haven for corporate defendants at the expense of individuals, families, and small business owners,” said Alex Winslow, director of Court Watch. “The statistics speak for themselves. The court’s pro-defendant ideology cannot be disputed.”

Among the report’s findings are:

  • Corporate and government defendants prevail in an average of 74% of cases annually.
  • Consumers have lost 79% of cases in which they were pitted against a corporate or government defendant.

These findings lead Court Watch to conclude: “The Texas Supreme Court has become a reliable friend to those who seek to escape the consequences of their actions; its justices are the ultimate guardians for the moneyed and powerful who wish to shirk responsibility.”

The report is here. The Trib spoke to a couple of people who did dispute Winslow’s assertions about the Court.

Bill Peacock, vice president of research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said he doesn’t think the large percentage of defendant wins means that the Supreme Court favors corporations. He attributed the numbers to the court interpreting laws that the Legislature has passed to limit frivolous lawsuits, which are often brought by consumers against businesses.

“The fact that more corporations are winning before the Supreme Court shows that the Supreme Court is doing its job,” Peacock said.

[…]

Former Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister also said evaluating the Supreme Court isn’t as simple as compiling statistics. The justices, he said, only consider cases in which they might reverse the lower court’s decision.

“They only look at 10 percent of the cases. They’re not going to take a case that looks right, and the consumer won,” Brister said.

Brister denied Texas Watch’s assertion that the court favors corporations.

“We don’t look at a case and say, ‘Where can we help a company?’” he said. “We say, ‘Where does something look wrong?’”

I do think there’s something to what Peacock and Brister say. I mean, the laws the Supreme Court is asked to interpret are themselves generally anti-consumer and pro-corporate. So is the Legislature that writes those laws. For sure, the Supreme Court is part of the problem, but they’re not the extent of the problem. The remedy for each is the same, and that’s to elect people with a broader diversity of background, experience, and perspective to both the Lege and the Court. Which will be a little more difficult this year, as there are no Democrats running for the Supreme Court, but one must take the long view. Until we elect more people who share the experiences of the people that are getting shafted and want to represent them, very little will change. Trail Blazers has more.

Anti-tax zealots plump for casinos

Gambling yes!

Grover Norquist, the nation’s most prominent anti-tax crusader, wrote a letter last week to Texas legislators to call for expanded gambling.

“In light of the adverse economic impact that higher taxes would have, it is imperative that lawmakers consider all other options for balancing the state’s budget,” Norquist wrote. “There are a number of alternatives to raising taxes, the most preferable being an expansion of economic activity, and thus, the tax base. One way to do that would be to permit legitimate businesses to operate that are currently not allowed to do so. Research has found that permitting lawful and responsible gaming operations in Texas is one simple way to grow the Texas economy, thereby generating more tax revenue for the state.”

Representatives from groups that tried to pass gambling measures in the 2011 legislative session said they had nothing to do with the letter.

Gambling no!

The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s executive director, Arlene Wohlgemuth, and it director of fiscal policy, former state Rep. Talmadge Heflin, sought to counter a pro-gambling letter sent to state leaders last week from anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform.

[…]

“While we generally agree with our friends at ATR on tax and spending issues, when it comes to gambling, that is not the case. Their suggestion that gambling is a way ‘in which to rectify the anticipated budget imbalance’ is wrong,” Wohlgemuth and Heflin wrote.

The foundation’s preferred approach would lean more toward fiscal discipline as the state faces the likelihood of another budget shortfall ahead of the 2013 legislative session.

I’m generally agnostic to deeply ambivalent on the gambling question, but if those are my choices I say bring on the casinos and the racetrack slot machines. There are of course other choices, just not ones that these one-percenter chuckleheads are interested in. As we well know, we’ll need a better legislature for any other options to get traction.

Beyond that, I have no idea if any of this will make a difference or not. Neither argument is particularly original, so at this point it’s more a matter of which article of faith one subscribes to. The real question at this point is whether or not gambling will have a higher profile in 2013 than it did in 2011. My money’s on yes.

Still more evidence that tort “reform” is a scam

Recently, I blogged about a Public Citizen report that documented the ways in which tort “reform”, specifically medical malpractice damage caps, are a scam that has done none of the things its backers promised. You might have read that and thought “sure, but Public Citizen is a lefty group, and so they would never have liked med mal caps to begin with”. If so, then you should know that a researcher at the libertarian Cato Institute just released a paper that came to similar conclusions. Here’s a quote:

When asked how consumers benefit from medical malpractice insurance, industry executives typically mention only patient compensation. Yet much more is at work.

Competition in the market for medical malpractice insurance, and each insurer’s interest in reducing its exposure to malpractice awards, leads insurers to provide oversight that protects consumers from physician negligence. Malpractice underwriters review physicians annually. They evaluate claims histories and investigate loss of hospital privileges, substance abuse, and loss of specialty board certification. They alert the medical community to situations that result in bad outcomes and offer advice on how to reduce such outcomes. The evidence presented here shows that physicians pay a price for putting patients at risk. Carriers reward claims-free physicians and physicians who take part in risk-management activities. The industry provides oversight of risky practitioners, dictates patterns of practice, monitors the introduction of new procedures, imposes policy exclusions for specific activities, and denies coverage in the most egregious cases, precluding affiliations that require insurance.

More broadly, patients derive protection from an interdependent system of physician evaluation, penalties, and oversight that includes hospital and health maintenance organization credentialing and privileging activities, specialty boards, and the medical malpractice insurance industry. Underlying nearly all of these activities is the threat of legal liability for negligent injuries. Reducing physician liability for negligent care by capping court awards, all else equal, will reduce the resources allocated to medical professional liability underwriting and oversight and make many patients worse off. Legislators who see mandatory liability caps as a cost-containment tool should look elsewhere.

So there you have it. And in the irony department, Texas Watch adds this:

The Cato paper is written by Shirley Svorny, an economics professor at Cal State-Northridge and an adjunct scholar at Cato. Her bio reports that she has participated in health policy summits hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

That would be the right wing, tort-“reform”-touting TPPF. Something tells me Professor Svorny will not be invited to share this research at their next meeting.

More on mental health

Stephen Schnee, the executive director of MHMRA of Harris County, and Octavio N. Martinez, Jr, the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and a clinical professor in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, make the case again for not cutting mental health services in the state budget.

The Houston-based nonprofit organization Children At Risk found that in 2009, an estimated 229,055 kids in Harris County had a diagnosable mental illness. MHMRA of Harris County serves an average of 2,490 kids per month, just a small fraction of those who desperately need treatment. Houston’s mental health system is already stretched to its limits – it can take weeks for kids to receive noncrisis services, exacerbating their symptoms and creating a need for even more intense treatment and services. If devastating budget cuts come to fruition, this will further restrict access to care. See this KTRK story for more.

Texas ranks 49th in mental health expenditures per capita – how much worse can it get? We are already almost at rock bottom. If lawmakers cut funding for public mental health services, some children and families will have no place to go for care that shouldn’t be considered optional. Is this really the best we have to offer our kids? And if it is, what message are we sending to the future leaders of Texas?

That message would be “Dan Patrick’s property taxes are more important than you”. Any questions?

If we deny children appropriate mental health care now, we’ll just pay a higher cost in the future. Left untreated, kids with emotional disturbances are more likely to drop out of school – a 2008 national study found that in 2005-06, only 43 percent of kids with a mental illness graduated from high school. Children At Risk reports that high school dropouts cost Texans a huge amount in the long run – an estimated loss of up to $9.6 billion per cohort. Additionally, high school dropouts contribute to higher rates of crime, incarceration and use of welfare and social services. Given these statistics, it makes sound fiscal sense to provide adequate mental health care for youth at an early age, or else taxpayers will just pick up a much bigger tab in the future.

[…]

This is an issue where everyone can agree. Hospital districts, community leaders, advocates, sheriffs and police chiefs across Texas believe that any cutback in funding for mental health will likely result in increased traffic to hospital emergency rooms, juvenile justice facilities and jails, and that equals increased costs for government and taxpayers. Underfunding mental health services simply shifts the cost to other agencies and to local government authorities, whose budgets are already inadequate.

It’s estimated that 52 percent of youth in the Harris County juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition. The Texas Public Policy Foundation found that youth who become career criminals cost taxpayers and victims an estimated $2 million during their lifetimes. Community-based services for youth with mental illness like those provided by MHMRA are far less expensive, and in most cases, far more effective.

Sure, this is an issue on which everyone should agree, but let’s be real. The same TPPF that recognizes the cost of skimping on early intervention is one of the leading voices right now arguing that we don’t have a budget shortfall, we just need to adjust the level of services we’re providing to the amount of revenue we have and ignore all that wailing and gnashing of teeth about the effect that would have. They don’t even agree with themselves. Good luck getting anyone in their thrall to agree with you.

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.

The fight over social studies

We’ve talked before about how the State Board of Education wants to do to history what it’s been doing to science. The Chron adds some details to the discussion.

Biographies of Washington, Lincoln, Stephen F. Austin? Not fit reading material for children in the early grades.

Cesar Chavez? Not worthy of his role-model status.

Christianity? Emphasize its importance.

Such suggestions are part of efforts to rewrite history books for the state’s schoolchildren, producing some expert recommendations that are sure to inflame Texans, no matter their political leanings.

The State Board of Education expects to start discussing new social studies curriculum standards this week, with members of the public getting their first opportunity to speak this fall and a final board vote next spring.

The process is a long one with lasting impact: reshaping the social studies curriculum, including history, for 4.7 million Texas public school children.

As we know from the controversy over science textbooks, the decisions the SBOE makes affect schoolchildren outside of Texas as well. Expect this latest drama to get national coverage as well, which means expect Texas’ image nationally to take another hit.

“This is something that every parent would want to be paying attention to. This will determine whether or not the kids get the education needed to succeed in college and jobs in the future,” said Dan Quinn of the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network. “If we are going to politicize our kids’ education, that will put our kids behind other kids when they’re competing for college and good-paying jobs on down the road.”

Curriculum standards are updated about every 10 years; the last social studies update came in 1997.

According to a preliminary draft of the new proposed standards, biographies of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Stephen F. Austin have been removed from the early grades, said Brooke Terry of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The early draft, which is likely to change multiple times in the coming months, also removes Independence Day, Veterans’ Day, and anthems and mottos for both Texas and the United States in a section on holidays, customs and celebrations, she said.

“You have the ability to shape the next generation on the beliefs about the government and the role of personal responsibility but also understanding our history and the principles that we want to pass down to our children,” Terry said. “With many of the suggested changes, I think we would be backtracking on many of the important things that people fight for in defense of our country.”

You don’t see the TFN and the TPPF point in the same direction very often, that’s for sure. I hope that’s a sign that there will be enough pushback against this early draft to move it into non-ridiculous territory. Not that there’s a lot of precedent for that with the SBOE lately, but one hopes so anyway. TFN has more.

Taking taxation aversion to its logical extreme

This story just boggles my mind.

Think traffic congestion is bad now? Wait until 2012.

That’s when Texas’ highway fund — which relies on a motor fuels tax that hasn’t been raised since 1991 — will be out of money for new construction contracts, according to state senators and transportation officials urging action now on new funding options.

“The course we’re on will result in no new roads in Texas in the very near future,” Sen. John Carona, Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee chairman, said Wednesday.

To try to address the problem, the Texas Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval 23-8 to a bill by Carona, R-Dallas, to allow local-option elections in regions around the state to raise fees or taxes for local projects.

The bill in question is SB855.

While lawmakers consider the issue, Texas Transportation Commission member Ned Holmes of Houston said the state motor fuels tax has dipped even as the population increased.

Not only will funding for new construction contracts be gone in 2012, money for maintenance of existing roads will be insufficient, leaders said.

“There will be no new capacity money after about 2012,” Holmes said. “None. … So we have this growing population, we have an increasing average mile per gallon in the fleet (motor vehicles) and we have a fixed gasoline tax. There is no way that we can fund the needs that we have with this formula.”

The state also gets federal money and uses bonds to fund roads, but several senators said continued reliance on debt isn’t sustainable.

The 20-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax that fuels the highway fund, meanwhile, hasn’t been raised since 1991, and there appears little appetite to do so this session.

I can understand to some extent the reluctance to raise the gas tax, or ideally to index it to inflation. I think it’s lousy that that’s off the table, but it is the political reality, and it’s why we wind up with crazy privatized toll road schemes and convoluted local option bills like this one. It’s very basic – we need new roads, we need to maintain and improve the roads we already have, and we need to find the money to do these things, because the revenue source we have, which we refuse to enhance, is inadequate. It doesn’t get more basic than this.

And yet the idea that the government may need more money to do something as basic and necessary as build and maintain roads is enough to get the usual crowd of taxophobes into a lather.

Opponents included Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who voiced concern that county officials would have the opportunity “to tax their citizens and tax their citizens and tax their citizens.”

GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who will have the opportunity to sign or veto the bill if it passes the House, is committed to working with Carona on transit issues but “has strong concerns about the host of significant tax increases,” said his spokeswoman, Allison Castle.

Hold that thought for a second while we read more about those diabolical tax increases here:

The bill, which will need a state constitutional amendment as well to go into effect, would allow county commissioners in the Metroplex, Central Texas, Bexar County and a few other spots to call elections asking voters for permission to raise one or more of six fees or taxes. This includes up to a 10-cent-a-gallon local gasoline tax.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation and some other conservatives oppose the bill. Although it doesn’t raise taxes, instead allowing others (well, voters really) to make that decision, an aspiring politician could argue in a future Republican primary that the Legislature was part of a multi-part scheme to raise taxes. Convoluted perhaps, but enough to have spooked Dewhurst and some other Republicans.

Okay, so before some dastardly county official gets to tax, tax, tax his citizens, first the citizens of Texas must vote to approve a constitutional amendment, which had to be approved by a two-thirds majority in each chamber. Once all that is done, the citizens who are going to be taxed, taxed, taxed would then have to vote in a special election to impose those new taxes, taxes, taxes on themselves. How much more public input is needed here?

The mindset just confounds me. I mean, either you think there’s no legitimate way to impose a tax, or you think there’s some magic alternate way to fund this need that somehow won’t be borne by the citizens. I suppose you could favor toll roads for all new construction, financed by bonds to be paid off by toll revenues, but what about existing roads? Do the Dan Patricks and the Rick Perrys have an alternate plan, or do they think none is necessary because it’ll all take care of itself? Burka and Eye on Williamson have more.

UPDATE: You may have noticed that Harris County is not part of SB855, which is a curious omission. Burka notes the reason for that:

What [Harris County officials] didn’t want was to give Senator Dan Patrick a platform for opposing the bill on the Senate floor. So the decision was made that the Houston region will be included when the bill reaches the House floor, by an amendment, probably authored by Wayne Smith.

Just call him Sen. Dan “Needs to be worked around, not worked with” Patrick. Really says a lot, doesn’t it?

Will we or won’t we fix unemployment insurance?

There’s a lot of money riding on the answer to that question.

The lure of $555 million in federal stimulus money for additional unemployment insurance has Texas legislators mulling whether to expand unemployment benefits to more workers.

To get that money, Texas would have to implement some key changes to state law — including modifying some eligibility requirements to include tens of thousands of low-wage workers. Such changes have been considered but not enacted in previous sessions.

[…]

Gov. Rick Perry is reviewing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Barack Obama this month and the strings attached to all the money, a spokeswoman said.

The unemployment money would be the mostly likely candidate if Perry were to reject anything from the stimulus package.

Perry has said the stimulus money should be used only for one-time projects, not ongoing expenses.

“The hardest thing to remove from government is a temporary program,” Ken Armbrister, Perry’s legislative director, said at a Wednesday hearing.

[…]

The federal money could lessen the need for new taxes on business, said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, who is chairman of the Technology, Economic Development and Workforce Committee.

“Failure to adopt the policy changes … would result in a higher burden on business taxpayers in the immediate and near term during the recession” than would expanding the benefits, Strama said.

I can understand the reluctance to taking one-time money for potentially ongoing expenditures. But sometimes these are things you should have been doing anyway, and will at worst take on a relatively small expense while getting a worthwhile return on it. A little more analysis and a little less sloganeering would go a long way here.

The Workforce Commission is still determining how much the change would cost.

But an analysis of a similar 2007 bill put the price tag at about $35 million to $45 million a year as 74,000 additional workers would become eligible for benefits, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

The number, however, would probably be somewhat higher given today’s higher unemployment rates.

That change alone would open the door to Texas receiving $185 million of the stimulus money.

The Legislature has some options for how to tap the remaining $370 million. Lawmakers would need to enact two of four policy changes, such as allowing people to get benefits while searching for part-time work.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans, estimates that all of the reforms combined would cost $55 million to $75 million a year, so the federal money could cover the costs for seven years or more.

No one knows the true cost because that would be driven by how many more people took advantage of the benefits, said Talmadge Heflin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which advocates for limited government.

“The upside is all short-term,” Heflin said. “The downside in future years will greatly outweigh any upside.”

Funny, you could say the exact same thing about those big property tax cuts we enacted last session when we had some extra cash lying around. I don’t recall there being a whole lot of angst from certain quarters about how we were going to pay for it going forward – there may have been something about the beauty of the free market, or the Laffer curve, or magic pixie dust, I’m not sure. You want to talk about something that’s tough to get rid of, try repealing an irresponsible tax cut. In contrast, this would cost about $150 million per biennium – likely less in the future when the economy improves and more people are working again – which is about 0.2% of the total state revenue we have for this period. It would also help a lot of people who could really use it, and would be quite economically stimulative, as the recipients would be spending all that money on frivolities like food and housing. Seems like an easy decision to make, if you ask me. Patricia Kilday Hart sums up the hearings, in which Texas Workforce Commission Chair (and former chair of the Republican Party of Texas) Tom Pauken spoke in favor of getting stimulus money, as follows:

So, to review:

1. An escalating unemployment rate means the trust fund is paying out 120 percent more than it did this time last year and

2. At current rates, the trust fund will be broke by fall and

3. Bill Hammond [of the Texas Association of Business] doesn’t want to take any federal stimulus money to fix it because somebody might have to pay higher taxes in the future.

Like I said, seems like an easy call to me. Press releases from the AFL-CIO of Texas and Senators Rodney Ellis, Eddie Lucio, Leticia Van de Putte, and Representative Joe Deshotel, who are urging Governor Perry to declare this a legislative emergency, are beneath the fold.

(more…)

We have the beginnings of a budget

And with it, some idea of how deep the hole is.

Maintaining basic state services over the next two years will cost Texas almost $84 billion, $3.7 billion more in general revenue than the state expects to raise during that period, according to the Senate budget introduced Tuesday.

To close that gap, lawmakers will have to choose between cutting costs, raising more money or dipping into a rainy day fund that is projected to have $9.1 billion available.

The key words in those paragraphs are “maintaining basic state services”. In other words, if we just do what we did two years ago, we’re $3.7 billion in the red. Keep that in mind when you hear people talking about cutting spending.

That gap could also grow considerably because the base budget, prepared by the Legislative Budget Board staff, will serve as the starting point for the Senate and House to begin hammering out the nitty-gritty of the 2010-11 budget.

Nor does the proposal cover increased demand for services in all areas, said Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and moderate-income families.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a statement that the budget meets his priorities of “holding the line on state spending, continuing the record local school property tax cuts and funding essential services for the most vulnerable in our society.”

But Talmadge Heflin, a former House appropriations chairman, said more spending restraint was needed.

“The Texas Legislature needs to get to work on pruning the next state budget back within the available revenue,” said Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an advocate for limited government.

Heflin had more to say than that – Burka has his statement, along with a suitable reply. Heflin is delusional, but he’s got a lot of company. I hope that people will associate him and his positions with the budget disaster that came out of the 2003 session and will at least consider other possibilities.

The Morning News has more details:

The Senate’s version spends $171.5 billion over two years – 1 percent more than in the current two-year budget cycle; the House, $170.8 billion.

The key differences between the two chambers’ plans were that the Senate’s would spend $200 million to fix state schools for people with mental retardation; $148 million to expand teacher merit pay programs; and $200 million to maintain current financial incentives for better performance by state universities and colleges.

Both versions would leave intact most of the $9.1 billion that Comptroller Susan Combs last week predicted would pile up in the rainy day fund by September 2011.

The Senate plan proposes $3.7 billion of spending that’s not covered by Combs’ revenue estimate – of which $1.4 billion would occur only if textbook money can’t be distributed from the Permanent School Fund, battered by recent stock market dips.

The House’s base budget would draw down the rainy day fund by $3.3 billion, or maybe only $1.9 billion if the textbook money is freed from the school fund.

Both bills include a provision spelling out how cuts would be made to balance the budget, if lawmakers balk at tapping the rainy day fund. Spending the money, derived mostly from oil and natural gas production taxes, requires a supermajority in each chamber.

So if all goes well and there’s enough votes to tap into the rainy day fund, we’ll spend about $2 billion of the $9 billion that it contains. That doesn’t seem like too big a withdrawal to me. If not, if there’s enough Heflin acolytes to insist that we leave all that money under the mattress, then we get to cut basic services again. Which will be just a dandy thing to do in an economic turndown. The fun begins next week when both chambers reconvene. You can see both proposals on the Legislative Budget Board‘s website, and you can see Sen. Ogden’s SB1 here. Thanks to Eye on Williamson for the links.