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Lawmakers React To First Draft Of State Budget

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

Dallas, TX – Shock and anger filled the floor of the Texas House today as the first draft of the 2-year state budget was released. Texas faces a revenue shortfall of $15 -to $27 billion dollars. KERA's Shelley Kofler reports that money for even the most sacrosanct programs was slashed.

Summary of Legislative Budget Estimates

Lawmakers saw it coming- sort of. They'd been told the House's budget blueprint would include no extra dollars from tax increases, and spend no money from the Rainy Day reserve fund.

But the details of what that could mean brought protests from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Rep. Villareal: This proposal has us dropping the torch handed to us.

Democrat Mike Villareal from San Antonio was stunned when confronted with deep cuts that whack $5 billion dollars from current public school spending and doesn't add money for an estimated 150,000 new children expected to enroll during the next budget cycle.

Universities also get hit hard and lose 69 percent of Texas Grant money, that's the state's main financial aid program. Villareal said it's not acceptable that Texas Grants wouldn't be available to most new college applicants.

Villareal: This proposal has us stepping away for what has been a tradition of this state government to aspire to graduate more high school students and more college students. Have we given up on that goal?

The House budget which is 16.6% smaller than the current budget cancels funding for teacher merit pay and pre-kindergarten programs.

That alarmed Dallas Democrat Helen Giddings.

Giddings: Our young people either begin to succeed or they start to fail at that level. To take 109,000 kids off the pre-k program and to leave $9 billion in the Rainy Day Fund just is a little more than I can quite comprehend.

The budget eliminates more than 1,500 prison jobs, some 9,600 jobs overall. It cuts mental health services 40% and reimbursement for Medicaid providers by 10 percent.

Texas already pays doctors and nursing homes the second to the lowest Medicaid rate in the country. Austin Representative Elliott Naishtat warned that under this proposal services that allow elderly to stay in their homes will disappear but nursing homes may not be able to afford new patients.

Naishtat: If we can't find workers at the local level to provide direct care services seniors and people with disabilities who depend on these services will inevitably be forced into nursing homes, but there may not even be opportunities to move into nursing homes.

Some of the harshest backlash focused on cuts to community colleges and the closing of four of them including Ranger Community College west of Fort Worth. Ranger is in Republican Jim Keffer's district.

Keffer: To start off with a black and white that an institution will be closed, what it does to the staff what it does to the financing what it does to the institution is the height of irresponsibility.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts of Waxahachie who presented the budget said the community colleges targeted for closure were selected because they have declining enrollments.

Pitts repeatedly told worried lawmakers this draft budget is just a starting point. He hopes to add money for some programs throughout the session.

But that did little to mollify lawmakers who see basic, traditional services being readied for the chopping block.

Just one major program escaped most proposed budget cuts. That was border security, a high priority of Governor Perry.

Email Shelley Kofler