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Strayhorn steps into fray over HHS spending

By J. Lyn Carl, GalleryWatch.com

Austin,TX – One of State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's favorite verbal exclamation points when refuting claims by naysayers and elected officials whose opinions or facts and figures differ from hers is - "Hogwash!"

Today she invited Gov. Rick Perry to step up to the trough and do what she's been urging him and the rest of the Republican leadership to do since early July - put health and human services spending increases on the call for the current special session.

During the regular session that ended June 2, Republican lawmakers were able to stay true to their pledge of "no new taxes" and a balanced budget by approving cuts in numerous health and human services programs that assist the state's most fragile and vulnerable populations and the state's children.

Democrats begged their Republican counterparts, now in the majority, not to undercut the state's neediest population. Advocacy groups testified for hours on end in countless committee hearings regarding the effects those cuts would have on those who rely on many of the programs.

When the smoke cleared and the regular session ended, lawmakers balanced the budget, due in part to those cuts. But shortly thereafter, some $800 million in federal funds came down the pike to the state. Session ended, it was too late to appropriate those funds.

Then comes Comptroller Strayhorn shortly after the first called session began on June 30, noting that she and her staff worked closely with the leadership to find a solution that gives the governor and the Legislative Budget Board authority to spend the money even though the legislature had adjourned and signed off on the budget.

The first called session came and went, and not a word was said about the funds.

Enter the 'Texas 11," Senate Democrats who Monday fled the state for New Mexico to break a Senate quorum and prevent a congressional redistricting bill from coming to the Senate floor.

Two days after they entered the "Land of Enchantment," the worm turned. Republicans now began laying blame on the missing Democrats for holding up spending that $800 million in additional revenue.

"I am saddened by the fact that we will not be able to put hundreds of millions of dollars into a number of priorities," Perry said Monday. "We could have spent that money to boost Medicaid payments for home care services, to help pregnant women receive Medicaid services, to expand health insurance for children of working families, to provide HIV medications for afflicted Texans, to train new doctors, or to address a number of other health and human service needs."

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), longtime chair of the Senate's Health and Human Services Committee and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee probably could have borrowed on Strayhorn's "Hogwash" exclamation. "You can imagine my chagrin as vice chair of Finance and a member of the conference committee to hear the governor say we are taking actions that would hurt the very people we tried to protect," she said Tuesday.

Today, in a speech to the Texas Hospital Association, Perry said he had reached an agreement in principle with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick to use $167 million of the new federal matching funds to increase Medicaid rate reimbursements for hospitals and physicians.

He said the flight of the 11 Senate Democrats "jeopardized this vital increase in funding for doctors and hospitals by killing legislation that would have ensured our authority to provide a higher Medicaid reimbursement rate."

And somewhere Strayhorn was probably shouting, "Hogwash!"

"Though I am pleased to hear that the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker have reached an agreement in principle to use $167 million on health and human services spending," she said today, "I am still urging the governor to add this issue to the call to allow the Legislature to appropriate more than $700 million made available since the regular session to stop the anxiety for our frail elderly, Texans with disabilities, and medically needy children now.

"I shared this information publicly on July 11, early in the first special session, so that the Legislature could act on it immediately."