Another eventful week has come and almost gone in Austin. As both chambers continue marathon meetings dealing with the state budget, the House found time to debate the Sonogram Bill that has already passed out of the Senate. With votes largely following party lines, the bill — which was almost derailed by some procedural issues —has continued working its way through the House and awaits its third reading. Debate has been passionate but civil.
The week also saw a vocal and massive protest against proposed reductions to the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services budget. The halls of the Capitol were packed with clients in wheelchairs, families, attendants and fellow citizens — with an abundance of placards, chants, and rhetoric heightening the passion.
The House Appropriations Committee heard a thoughtful presentation from State Comptroller Susan Combs regarding potential use of the Rainy Day Fund to alleviate some of the deficits for the current biennium. Combs pointed out that legislators had only three choices at their disposal to balance the budget: (1) impose more cuts this current biennium (now); (2) defer some expenses to the coming year; or, (3) use some of the Rainy Day Fund. The Constitution requires the Comptroller to dip into the Rainy Day Fund anyway to balance the budget if the Legislature is unable to do that. At the end of the fiscal year, all of the state’s bills must be paid!
Combs confirmed that use of the Rainy Day Fund would NOT adversely impact Texas’ bond ratings or the ability to sell commercial paper on Wall Street. She did advise that the current economy made her cautious about planning for the future and reminded members that there was no assurance that the economy would be booming by the 2013 session.
Chairman Pitts introduced a House bill proposing use of $4.3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to address supplemental appropriations needs, thus assuring the availability of an additional $4.3 billion for budget use during the current budget planning cycle. On the Senate side, there is a growing call for use of the Rainy Day Fund to infuse more revenue into the distressed budget.
The “T” word also found its way into the media this week, with several members going so far as to suggest that use of the Rainy Day Fund be accompanied by additional taxes. With our state’s historic aversion to taxes, the discussions on this issue should prove interesting.
On Tuesday, March 1, 147 UTMB medical, nursing, health professions and graduate students rolled up to Capitol Hill in three buses, disembarked, and presented themselves to the legislative houses to state their case for completing the promised restoration of UTMB from the ravages of Hurricane Ike. Led by new faces on the TMA/AMA student leadership team — Kelli Gross (Chapter President), Lauren Woolbert (Secretary/Treasurer), Toug Tonarttanavin (TMA Delegate), Roxi Radi (AMA Delegate), and Daniel Branch (chief student organizer of the trip) — the group also received lots of mentorship from seasoned veterans like Brian Masel, Michael Leasure, and Samantha Dallefeld. The trip was organized and funded by Friends of UTMB, a group of private citizens who support the university and its mission.
The students were met by UTMB’s legislative House members, Craig Eiland of Galveston and Larry Taylor of Friendswood. They posed for the obligatory photos on the east Capitol steps, and received words of appreciation and encouragement from the state representatives. Along the way, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Dean of the Senate John Whitmire found time to extend their well wishes and encouragement to the group.
Students had photo ops in the Capitol Rotunda, were introduced in the House by Representatives Taylor and Eiland, and listened to Senator Mike Jackson praise the impressive diversity, test scores and economic impact of UTMB’s students when he introduced them in Senate chambers.
Our students also visited House and Senate members from their home legislative districts, giving them an opportunity to share information about UTMB, their hopes and dreams of becoming health professionals, and the urgency of the need to restore UTMB’s hospitals and campus to pre-Ike status.
Along the way, many had opportunities to talk directly with Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and other familiar faces in Texas politics. The day culminated with a press conference in the Senate press room.
Students retired to the TMA building’s first-floor reception area and had an early dinner of Texas BBQ. That program featured the chair of the House Higher Education Committee, Representative Dan Branch of Dallas, who spoke about the importance of higher education and medical education in particular. Students had time for questions prior to boarding buses and heading back to Galveston.
UTMB’s students are articulate and passionate about their university. Making that heard in Austin among the dissonance of so many issues is never an easy task. But as I heard post-visit comments and questions from many, I realized just how important UTMB is to them and how strong their feelings are for their future patients.
I am proud of our students and the real difference they make. They aren’t “kids.” They are intelligent, thoughtful and organized, and a formidable force for good. They are our future.