Circling the Wagons

It has been a little bit like that old TV series “Wagon Train.” Now if you remember that TV show, you are dating yourself to a time just after a television became an essential household furnishing. Nevertheless, in times of impending trouble, the wagon master would order the drivers to “circle the wagons.” I often wondered what would happen if they just stayed in the circle and continued to drive. Pretty cool idea, huh? Horses are going at full speed, dust billowing up everywhere, but no one really getting to a destination.

Well, I finally got to see the wagons circle and stay in motion this week. It is not all that pretty.

After weeks of discussion, debate, hand-wringing, study, and seriously hard work, the wagons in Austin have pretty much circled (although I think some are still in motion). The House Appropriations Committee (HAC) met last week and heard from the Comptroller, Susan Combs, that the Rainy Day Fund could be tapped to help balance the state’s budget without jeopardizing the state’s bond ratings. With a word of caution, she reminded members that there was no crystal ball guarantee of a reversal in the economy’s downward spiral, nor was there any assurance that money used to address this session’s budget woes would not be needed in the near future (like 2013).

Members of the HAC went back to their subcommittees and continued to look for additional ways to reduce expenses among the myriad of agency budgets they oversee. Remember, our state representatives are very smart men and women who run multi-million-dollar corporations of their own and/or have years of experience balancing budgets in their local communities. Simply put, this is a group of sharp leaders committed to balancing the budget on behalf of the Texans they serve. HAC Chairman Jim Pitts lives and breathes his job. So does his vice-chair, Sylvester Turner. No one party or member has a monopoly on wanting to see our state successful.

In spite of the House leaderships’ efforts to resolve the shortfall, they met this week with virtually the same budget they started with four weeks ago. The circle is complete and the wagons are showing some wear and tear after what has been a painful journey thus far.

The public has for the most part rejected the notion that the proposed budget cuts are a good idea. The $9 billion shortfall in the foundation public school program, with resulting reductions of teachers, programs and educational opportunity, has been a difficult pill for most parents to swallow. The Texas Education Agency leadership painted a bleak picture to the full HAC Wednesday morning during three hours of testimony. At the end, it was clear that reductions in state funding would require local districts to raise local taxes in order to preserve educational resources.

Moreover, the commissioner for the state’s retirement system reported that the system is solvent and doing well, but admitted that reductions in contributions to the state employee (and teacher) retirement programs would have long-term consequences. State Representative Craig Eiland also pointed out that retirees have received only benefit enhancement in the past decade, and that there have been no-cost-of-living increments during that time. He also noted that increased costs for retiree health insurance have contributed to a decrease in benefits and take-home pay.

The issue of higher education finally came up late Wednesday. Specifically, House Bill 1 recommendations for the health-related institutions came before the committee at 5 p.m.  Within 37 seconds, the HAC voted to accept them as originally stated in the bill—meaning, no changes. For UTMB, it means a 25 percent reduction of funding to the hospital. Both State Representative Larry Taylor (who remains the Republican House Caucus Chairman) and Rep. Eiland were present for the vote, although Taylor is not on the HAC. His presence sent a clear message to the members of his interest in the final outcome. The presence of both representatives and their spoken statements also reminded committee members that UTMB wants to be treated on equal footing with other health-related institutions whose funding was reduced by 10 percent, not 25 percent.

So where does all this action, inaction, rhetoric, and shifting of priorities put UTMB?

First, this outcome is not unexpected. The legislature has NO MONEY unless it taps the Rainy Day Fund, raises taxes, or moves funding away from another program! Most members are betting on their ability to obtain enough votes to tap the Rainy Day Fund for about $4.5 billion or more. If that happens, the wagon train will break formation, go back into subcommittees with an allocation of resources, and rebuild budgets. This will be another opportunity for UTMB to address its budget shortfall.

Our legislative delegation in the House will be working to convince their colleagues that UTMB merits their consideration for equal treatment among the health-related institutions in the higher education budgets. How will those decisions be made? This is a complex, exhausting process, but things happen best when committed, hard-working members know that their constituents are concerned and expecting progress.

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