Legislative Majorities Enact Deep Budget Cuts in Public Education, Higher Education, Health Care

By a vote of 20 to 11 in the Senate and 97 to 53 in the House on Saturday evening, Texas lawmakers passed a 2012-2013 budget that makes deep, unnecessary cuts in public education, higher education, health care, and other basic public services. With more than $6 billion available in the Rainy Day Fund, the legislative majorities chose to leave that money untouched rather than use it as intended to keep a short-term funding shortfall from causing long-term damage. They also chose not to address the state’s rickety tax structure, which (thanks to deliberate decisions going back to 2006 and beyond) does not generate the revenue needed to pay for public schools as promised.

The adverse impact of these decisions will be felt in many ways. School districts will receive $4 billion less in state aid, a cut of about $400 a year per pupil, than current law would require in the coming biennium. Another $1 billion plus will disappear for such valuable programs as the state’s grant program for high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten, which is entirely eliminated. Almost entirely gone is state funding for students at risk of failing high-stakes tests—the so-called Student Success Initiative. For the first time in living memory, the state under this budget betrays its commitment to fund the cost of enrollment growth of 80,000-plus pupils per year. The cumulative impact of all these cuts easily could translate into the loss of 40,000 or more jobs in public education.

The budget passed Saturday chops more than $1 billion from higher education, including a cut in student financial aid that will leave as many as 43,000 college students empty-handed. The bill reduces spending on health care as well, to the detriment of elderly and disabled Texans in particular. Overall, this budget shrinks state spending $15 billion below the 2010-2011 level.

Sen. Steve Ogden, Republican of Bryan and the principal Senate author of this bill, claimed that it fulfills the desire of voters for a no-new-taxes budget. But the budget in large part simply shifts costs to the local level or to the next biennium. As Ogden acknowledged, school districts now may well have to seek local tax-rate increases in order to avoid damaging layoffs and program cuts. He also conceded (as did his House counterpart, Republican Rep. Jim Pitts of Waxahachie) that the budget deliberately underestimates the cost of Medicaid by a whopping $4.8 billion, and the legislature will have to come up with that money or drastically curtail benefits in 2013.

Over the coming week we will catalogue in detail the damage this budget would do. Here we will give the last word to Sen. Rodney Ellis, Democrat of Houston (who noted that Texas already ranked 44th among the states in per-pupil funding before this budget and 49th in percentage of high-school graduates). Said Ellis: “I speak against this budget because we can do better.”

All those legislators who stood up to be counted against this bad budget bill deserve acknowledgment. In the House, that means 48 out of 49 Democrats (all except Rep. Craig Eiland of Galveston) and five of the 101 Republicans (Will Hartnett of Dallas, Aaron Pena of Edinburg, David Simpson of Longview, Van Taylor of Plano, Raul Torres of Corpus Christi). In the Senate, the honor roll includes 11 of the 12 Democrats—every member of the Democratic Senate caucus except Sen. Juan Hinojosa, Democrat of Corpus Christi. Not one of the Senate’s 19 Republicans voted against this awful budget.