The precipitation in Austin has been intense here of late. With the introduction of the Legislative Budget Board’s budget guidance, the filing of the House’s budget in HB-1 and the Senate’s budget in SB-1, and now the introduction of the Governor’s Budget it seems to be “Raining Budgets.” And of course there have been plenty of reactions to those budget proposals, like that of UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and other university chancellors and presidents in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee.
House Committees were appointed mid-week. The House Appropriations Committee, under the direction of State Representative Jim Pitts as Chairman and Vice Chairman Sylvester Turner, began its first meeting mere hours after members were named. They convened at 7 a.m. the next day to hear testimony from the executive directors of the state’s prison system, the Health and Human Services Commission, and the Foundation Schools program.
These “big three” account for over 51 percent of the state’s expenditures. As Tom Suehs, executive Director of HHSC, pointed out in his prepared testimony, the choices are difficult. Mr. Suehs is challenged with the daunting task of providing services to the state’s most fragile and marginalized citizens, from the very young to the elderly, from the reasonably healthy to the most severely disabled. Services to the mentally ill, the mentally challenged, the disabled, the frail elderly, ill neonates and Texans with TB, HIV and other diseases — all are facing “priorities” (another word for reductions).
It is understandable that people are anxious about what tomorrow may bring. With the presentation of so many different budgets and impact statements, it is easy to get confused as to where we are in the process.
We are currently in the information-gathering and planning phase of the political process, in which the legislators write the state budget and the laws that govern the budget in action. Right now there is a lot of analysis going on as the legislators work to have a shared understanding of just how the state budget dollars are used and what kind of return on investment the state gets for the dollars. Having a clear perspective of how the people of Texas are served by and benefit from these dollars is vital. Developing this perspective is the focus of the various committee and sub-committee hearings that are currently under way. And it is hard work.
For instance, the prison system accounts for roughly $5 billion in expenditures. Surely a budget of this magnitude can be reduced significantly. But making cuts is not as easy as one might think. The U.S. Supreme Court has set the standards for offender care and those constitutional standards must be followed if Texas is to avoid paying a high price for non-compliance—such as lawsuits or even the possibility of federal supervision of its prisons. And this budget includes many of the programs designed to save money by increasing rehabilitation and decreasing recidivism. Corrections Committee Chairmen Jerry Madden in the House and Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire in the Senate have worked for years to establish one of the most outstanding offender diversion and rehabilitation programs in the nation, for which both were named outstanding legislators of the year in 2010 by Governing Magazine. Their modest investment in offender rehabilitation through drug and alcohol treatment in community programs has saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars by keeping these individuals OUT of prison and decreasing future offenses. Should these programs be cut to save money? To do so would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. But what does one cut in order to achieve the necessary savings? The choices are difficult, indeed, and they play out in countless areas of the state budget: education, health care, public safety, transportation, parks, social services, and on and on. Close a park, save a school? Close a college program, save another? Setting priorities is hard work. And determining just who should set the priorities is a major part of the task.
The next few weeks will be filled with long hours, an infusion of vast amounts of testimony and information, and unsettling stories of what lies ahead. The challenge is to make sense of this incredible collection of data, facts and speculation and prepare for the next stage of the political process—decision-making. Texas Senators and Representatives are eager to understand the priorities and concerns of their constituents. Now is the time for citizens to let their voices be heard on the issues that impact them the most.
The forecast for the decision-making phase is complex, thorny, hazardous and humbling. Too soon the time will come when attention must shift from information-gathering to settling on priorities, finalizing those difficult choices and allocating resources dollars. And part of this decision-making process must include appropriate legislation that enables agencies, institutions and professionals to put into action that which has been decided and funded.
There is much at stake for the future of Texas. It is important that we not get confused and that we not give up. This is the time to be clear of our mission and vision for the future. This is the time when we come together to build a Bridge Over Troubled Waters.