After all, it is South by Southwest week in Austin, and there is as much to see in the session as at the annual music festival.
The House Appropriations Committee (HAC) waited for over two hours to convene to hear House Bill 1 and House Bill 274 (the budget and the supplemental budget placeholders).
Chairman Pitts called the meeting to order and read a press release from the Governor, Comptroller and Speaker of the House stating their limited support of the use of $3.2 billion of the Rainy Day (or economic stabilization) Fund to balance the current fiscal year's budget. The message was quite clear that there would be no use of these funds for the forthcoming fiscal year.
Why $3.2 billion?
The Comptroller updated her revenue estimate to include an additional $300 million in sales tax revenues. Additionally, cuts in the current budget of over $800 million have been identified. This means that original estimates of the shortfall ($4.3 billion) have been reduced by $1.1 billion. Thus, the $3.2 billion pays all remaining obligations from FY10-11. Without supplemental debt having to come from the projected future budget, the House has in effect freed up $4.3 billion for additions to the FY12-13 budget.
Proponents of using more of the fund toward the next biennial budget quickly made their displeasure known.
The HAC lost no time in designating $2 billion to the foundation school program (which will still face a $7 billion deficit rather than $9 billion). Another $2 billion was designated to Health and Human Services to address shortfalls there (which still leaves a $6+ billion hole in those services).
In the crowded, standing-room-only hearing room were media, disabled people in wheel chairs holding yellow signs stating "our homes, not nursing homes," and hoards of others. The crowd was restless but seemed almost resigned to the fact that the budget that was about to be voted out of committee still had some gaping holes. Resignation was also apparent on many members’ faces.
Although there were tense moments as the Democratic members and the Republican members disagreed, the discussions were civil and filled with probing questions and even occasional puns. The disagreements ranged from "what got us to this point?" to who is ultimately responsible for the structural deficits that some feel caused the current revenue shortfall.
House members are to be commended on their tireless work, patience, and respect for one another’s viewpoints. Certainly, Chairman Pitts had a difficult task of consensus building, which he achieved with praise from both parties. His leadership and ability to listen and respond with compassion and concern is laudable.
This was not a joyful journey. No one seemed overly thrilled with the decisions being made and no one came away feeling like they'd "won." Discussion of the Health and Human Services budget drew quite a bit of heartfelt comment. Case load growth was not funded in the Child Protective Services budget, as well as a number of other programs for the most vulnerable.
My Grandma used to say "never put off until tomorrow that which you can do today!” Many members adhere to this same philosophy and are seeking more lasting solutions to the problems that have placed the state in such troubled straits. They are still awaiting that opportunity.
Representative Debbie Riddle quickly rose to point out that UTMB’s reductions were much larger than the other health-related institutions and called upon the Legislative Budget Board and subcommittee chairman for explanations. She also requested additional consideration for the impact of the reductions on UTMB’s post-Ike recovery funding from the 81st Session. Representative Craig Eiland reminded the committee of the promised recovery funds and cited the adverse impact that such significant cuts to UTMB's budget would have on that recovery. Both members received assurance from Chairman Pitts that the UTMB issues would be further reviewed and addressed in the form of actions on the House floor and/or in the joint conference committee with the Senate.
The budget that passed out of the House Appropriations Committee reduced UTMB’s health care operations (hospital) appropriation by 25 %. The other state-funded higher education teaching hospitals’ budgets were reduced by 10 %. Otherwise, the reductions to UTMB are the same as those for other health-related institutions. No money was allocated to offender health care (CMC), pending further study.
In short, the overall reduction in HB-1 as it left the House Appropriations Committee leaves UTMB with an overall reduction of 21% from the FY10-11 funding level. This means $50.2 million would have to be added back to the budget for UTMB to be on par with other health-related institutions.
On a positive note, $40 million did find its way into the supplemental appropriations bill as a placeholder amount for the correctional health care shortfalls experienced by UTMB and Texas Tech thanks to the work of Representatives Taylor, Turner and Eiland.
Where do we go from here?
It’s important that we continue educating members about UTMB’s statewide role in health professions education and clinical care delivery. Also, it is important to highlight the important role our research enterprise plays in improving health for Texans and people the world over. The very positive economic impact on the state through UTMB’s education of health care professionals and the forthcoming construction projects associated with Hurricane Ike recovery cannot be overstated. Friends of the university, students, and alumni should certainly be letting people know about the merits and value of our fine institution. Putting a “human face” with the issues is important for increased understanding.