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The Contrarian

The Cameron Todd Willingham story has been chronicled—in print, on television, and now on film—more times than I can count. You probably know the basics: Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death for starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three daughters. The physical evidence of arson that convicted him later turned out to be wrong, though the State of Texas executed him anyway. Willingham went to his death claiming his innocence, and many people believe him. We likely will never know the truth.

As I’ve written many times, the import of the case lies in what it can teach us about fire science and the flawed field of arson investigation. Yet many of the print stories and television features on Willingham—including in-depth treatments by ABC’s “Nightline” and PBS’s “Frontline”—have focused more whether Willingham was guilty or innocent, whether he beat his wife, whether he loved his kids, whether he received a fair trial, whether his case would impact the death penalty debate. Media coverage also centered on the political impact of the case for Gov. Rick Perry, who denied Willingham’s last-minute request for a 30-day stay of execution. These are all interesting angles. But too often, the most important part of the story—the science—has gotten lost.   

That’s why filmmakers Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. are to be commended. Their new documentary on the Willingham case—Incendiary—which premiered this week at the South By Southwest film festival, focuses largely on the science.  

In fact, the first hour of the film largely consists of two prominent fire scientists—Gerald Hurst and John Lentini—explaining in detail why the blaze was likely accidental and why the arson evidence that convicted Willingham was—in the words of one lawyer interviewed in the film—”crap.”

I found it riveting. I should confess my bias: I’ve been fascinated with fire science and the field of arson investigation since 2007. In 2009, I wrote a four-part series on how outdated arson evidence has wrongly convicted hundreds of people in Texas. I investigated the cases of three men—Curtis Severns, Alfredo Guardiola and Ed Graf—whose arson convictions appeared flawed. (All three remain in prison, by the way.) I’ve spent many hours listening rapt to Hurst and Lentini talk about fire science,

I’ll concede that not everyone probably finds this stuff as fascinating as I do. But Hurst and Lentini are undeniably compelling. They’re both brilliant and have a knack for explaining the complexities of fire science in ways that non-science majors like myself can understand. I hope that viewers of this film walkout with a greater understanding of why the physical evidence in Willingham’s case was literally laughable, and  with a better idea of how so many innocent people could be wrongly convicted of arson. In that sense, Mims’ and Bailey’s decision to grant these scientists so much screen time is itself a public service.   

The other character who stars in the film is John Bradley. The surly prosecutor chairs the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Mims and Bailey devote significant time to chronicling the commission’s investigation into the Willingham case. They attended every commission meeting in 2010, and the film features testy exchanges between Bradley and nearly everyone—including Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project co-founder who Bradley sneeringly refers to as that “lawyer from New York,” fellow commissioners, the press, and even the filmmakers. At one hearing, Bradley ejects them from the commission’s meeting room, an apparent violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

The film ably chronicles how Bradley stalled the Willingham investigation until after Gov. Rick Perry had won the GOP primary and general election. Even for someone who followed the developments closely, it’s stunning to see all his machinations pieced together in a single telling.

But I suspect viewers will be more surprised by Bradley’s behavior at commission meetings. I’ve never seen a public servant badger people like Bradley does. For me, the frustrating part of covering the Forensic Science Commission is it’s nearly impossible to truly capture Bradley’s performances in print. You just have to witness the man in action. Anyone who sees this film will immediately understand why it appears the Texas Senate won’t confirm Bradley’s appointment, which would force him off the commission.

The film has a blockbuster ending. And I’ll give you a spoiler alert—if you don’t want to know the ending, stop reading now.

The final scene features David Martin, who was Willingham’s defense attorney at the original trial. Martin is a colorful quote—he supplies some of the best lines in the film—who has long contended in media interviews that his client was guilty. In the last scene, Bailey asks Martin if there’s any other reason, besides the evidence in the case, why he believes so strongly in Willingham’s guilt. There might be, Martin responds, but that involves attorney-client privilege.

The clear insinuation is that Willingham confessed his guilt to Martin during the 1992 trial.

I had never heard that tidbit before, and I have no idea what to make of it. Is Martin telling the truth? Or is he simply posturing?

These are questions—like so much of the Willingham case—we may never have answers for.

On the Budget, One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

Despite yesterday's deal, Texas' budget mess looks as bad as ever

Did yesterday’s budget deal make things better or worse? Tough to tell.

The big news at the Legislature yesterday—as you probably know—was the agreement between House budget writers and Gov. Rick Perry to use up to $3.2 billion of the Rainy Day Fund to balance the state’s finances. The deal has to be considered a bit of progress. Without the Rainy Day Fund, the state had no way to pay its bills through the end of this fiscal year. Yet Perry had, until yesterday, refused to publicly endorse tapping the emergency fund. Under the deal, budget writers can keep the state functioning. In exchange, I believe, the governor’s office must be getting some piece of Jim Pitts’ soul.

Forgive me some dark humor. Despite yesterday’s small bit of progress, it’s hard to be optimistic about the budget situation. The deal keeps the state solvent for this fiscal year. (We have a $4 billion deficit for the rest of 2011, and lawmakers can’t cut their way out of it because, with just five months left in FY 2011, there’s not enough time to implement cuts. The Rainy Day Fund was the only option.)

But here’s the thing: The deal really does nothing to address the larger problem—the roughly $27 billion budget deficit we’re facing for the next two years. In fact, we now have $3 billion less in the Rainy Day Fund to deal with the huge deficit for 2012-2013.

And Perry seems opposed to using any Rainy Day Fund money for the 2012-2013 budget. I hope Perry is simply posturing. Because without the Rainy Day Fund, the 2012-2013 budget would implement cuts that might cripple the state.That’s not just my opinion. That’s what state officials are telling the Legislature.

While the House was negotiating with Perry yesterday, on the other side of the Capitol, a Senate budget committee was having a terrible time trying to close the budget deficit for the next two years.

A Senate Finance subcommittee—headed by Republican Jane Nelson—has been tasked with slicing $16 billion from the health and human services budget. That’s nearly impossible.

A string of state agency administrators pleaded with the committee to restore a handful of key programs that are cut in the Senate’s draft budget. And your heart would have to be made of stone not to want these proposed budget cuts undone.

For instance, the draft budget drastically reduces funding for prevention programs that help keep kids out of foster care, as officials with the Department of Family and Protective Services pointed out. That might expand the number of kids in foster care. At the same time, the budget slashes the rates the state pays foster care providers. Essentially, the foster care system would be caring for more kids with significantly less money. If that doesn’t sound like a chilling recipe for mistreated children, I don’t know what does.

Sen. Nelson observed that the state’s Child Protective Services department had made great improvements since its scandals from 2005 and 2006—when media reports of murdered children ignored by the state were popping up regularly. Nelson stressed that the state couldn’t “backslide” on that progress.

So that seems like a dire need. But so does mental health care. The next agency head before the committee—the Department of State Health Services’ David Lakey—pleaded    with lawmakers not to cut funding for community mental health centers. In the draft budget, these centers—which provide counseling and medications to severely mentally ill Texans—take a $75 million hit. That would deprive treatment from 20,000 people, who would be wandering the streets without their meds and likely end up in the emergency room or county jails. Or worse, commit some horrific act of violence. Lakey said restoring some funding for the community centers—like the one in San Antonio I recently wrote about—is “essential.”

Then there are in-patient crisis centers for the mentally ill, which are slated for a $9 million cut. That would eliminate 54 beds statewide, mostly in Harris and Galveston counties and in Lubbock, for people experiencing mental health crises. The state is already short on beds for mental health treatment. Removing 54 beds would mean that some people who are a danger to themselves of others would either remain on the street or be thrown in county jails.

That’s to say nothing of the huge Medicaid rate cuts for doctors and nursing homes in the draft budget that would do serious damage. Lawmakers need to find money to restore those rate cuts or we could see hundreds of nursing homes closing across the state and thousands of seniors with no place to go.

Listening to hearings like this is profoundly depressing. I’ve started imagining the state budget like a submarine that’s taking on water. There are many compartments filled with vulnerable people who will drown without help, but we can’t save everyone. And state lawmakers are trying to decide which people to save and which hatches to close off and let people fend for themselves.

Is that analogy over-dramatic? I don’t think so. A good number of these cuts could end lives.   

So, yes, lawmakers made progress on the budget yesterday. The deal had to be done. But there’s no reason to celebrate. If Perry holds firm to his no-more-Rainy-Day-Fund-use stance, then yesterday’s events might have actually made things worse.

In San Antonio, Trying to Survive the Budget Cuts

Treatment works, but will the Legislature pay for it?

Imagine knowing how to save people’s lives, but lacking the resources to do it.

This is the position Leon Evans finds himself in. Evans runs the Center for Health Care Services—a government-funded community center in San Antonio that treats primarily Texans with mental illness, and drug and alcohol addictions. State funds have always been short, but Evans and his staff have achieved some remarkable success keeping the mentally ill and the self-medicating out of the criminal-justice system. That saves taxpayers money in the end. Now, he’s hoping pending state budget cuts don’t wash away all the progress.

“Treatment works,” Evans says. That’s not just his opinion. It’s a conclusion reached by numerous studies and put into practice around the country. For instance, studies have shown that paroled offenders who receive treatment for their mental illness or substance abuse are three-to-four times less likely to commit another crime. Instead, they’re more likely to become productive members of society—holding down jobs and paying taxes.

We know how to turn people’s lives around—in many cases, we know how to treat mental illness, how to pry them away from addiction. The question we face isn’t how to accomplish these things. The question is will we pay for them.

Texas has never provided adequate funding to its community mental health centers. The state ranks 49th in per capita spending on mental health. Hundreds of thousands severely mentally ill Texans already go without treatment statewide. The Center for Health Care Services provides outpatient treatment—medications and counseling—for more than 6,000 people a month (that’s 2,000 people more per month than the state pays for). Still, the center has turn away hundreds of people each month—either by placing them on a waiting list or by referring them elsewhere.

Since 2003, the center has partnered with county and city officials to run a Crisis Stabilization Unit—a 24-hour inpatient clinic for people enduring a mental breakdown who might harm themselves or others. The center also helps run a substance abuse unit that provides treatment for addicts. The two projects help keep at least 600 people a month out of the county jail.

But it’s not clear how much longer the center can sustain these programs. In the draft state budget, community mental health centers are facing up to a 40-percent cut in funding. Evans says he’s expecting to lose $8 million to $10 million—out of roughly $25 million he receives in state money. He could lose a third of his staff or more. “These cuts are basically going to cost shift on to the counties and cities and the hospital districts—cause these people will end up in jail or emergency rooms or homeless on the street,” Evans says.

The average homeless person costs taxpayers $30,000 a year worth of run-ins with law enforcement, and trips to county jails and emergency rooms, Evans says. A few hundred dollars worth of treatment for someone’s mental illness or addiction could save taxpayers tens of thousands.

“Why wouldn’t you fund a cost-effective treatment alternative to improve the public-safety net and save taxpayers’ dollars? Evans says. “Why wouldn’t you do that?”

It’s a question lawmakers may want to consider.

Hank Skinner Ruling Has Wider Implications

Supreme Court decision opens new path to DNA testing

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this morning in the Hank Skinner case isn’t really about Hank Skinner.

The High Court’s decision, by a 6-3 majority, will allow Skinner to petition a federal court for DNA testing on evidence in his case. Skinner, who sits on Texas death row and came within hours of execution last year, hopes DNA testing will confirm his claims that he didn’t commit the gruesome 1993 triple homicide for which he was convicted.

But the ruling has much wider implications. It opens a new avenue for many inmates to obtain post-conviction DNA testing of evidence in their cases.

The legal issue before the Supreme Court had little to do with the details of Skinner’s innocence claims. Rather, it was about legal process.

Until now, Texas inmates who wanted access to DNA evidence had to file a writ of habeas corpus. In siding with Skinner, the justices ruled that prisoners can also use federal civil rights claims to obtain evidence for DNA testing.

Why does that matter?

As I wrote last year, when the Supreme Court took the case, “[T]here are quite a few restrictions on habeas petitions, according to legal scholars. For one, the statute of limitations is short. Second, you’re allowed to file only one habeas petition. So if you file once, and more DNA material surfaces later, you’re out of luck. And, third, federal courts are supposed to show deference to state courts in habeas petitions. That means, federal courts can only overturn state rulings when they’re clearly unreasonable. You could argue that the rulings by Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals are frequently unreasonable, but it’s luck of the draw whether a federal judge will see it that way. In other words, your chances of winning a habeas claim to access DNA evidence aren’t good in Texas. And so it’s been so far for Skinner.”

Many of those issues have been mitigated now that the Supreme Court has ruled that inmates can pursue claims for DNA evidence with habeas petitions and under federal civil rights law.

That clears the legal barriers for Skinner to pursue his innocence claims. But it also opens a path for many other inmates who, for whatever reason, can’t file habeas petitions.

In short, many prisoners will have access to DNA testing that will confirm or overturn their guilt. It’s another way to catch mistakes in the system. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Bradley Puts On a Show in Senate Committee

Controversial chair of Forensic Science Commission spars with senators in confirmation hearing

Updated below

John Bradley doesn’t take crap from anyone.

When he’s lording over meetings of the Forensic Science Commission, the man is prickly even during his lighter moments (at other times he can be downright rude.) At legislative hearings, Bradley talks back to state senators like no one I’ve ever seen. If he wasn’t district attorney of Williamson County and chair of the Forensic Science Commission, Bradley would make one hell of a cut-throat divorce lawyer.

Bradley came before the Senate Nominations Committee this morning for a confirmation hearing. Most gubernatorial appointees—even the most controversial ones—typically soft-talk their way through Senate confirmation to their posts. Bradley was having none of that. He came ready to defend his controversial 18-month tenure as chair of the Forensic Science Commission. And the press was eager for the show—half the sparse audience consisted of reporters.

Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis—who might be described as Bradley’s legislative nemesis—was there to ask the DA some pointed questions.

The case against Bradley is a long one. I reviewed some of the controversy in my post on Friday. He mainly has delayed the commission’s investigation into the flawed arson evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham case. (Grits recounted the many criticisms in more detail. And the Houston Chronicle articulated the argument against Bradley in an editorial today calling for senators to deny him confirmation.)

Ellis hammered Bradley for telling a reporter that Willingham was a “guilty monster.” How, Ellis wanted to know, could Bradley make such a statement when the prosecutor was chairing an investigation into Willingham’s case?

Bradley shot back with a list of the courts that had found Willingham guilty. “I didn’t find it a particularly shocking notion that he was guilty,” Bradley said. Rather, he was trying to counter the statements put out by a advocacy group in New York (read: the Innocence Project) that argued Willingham might be innocent.

When Ellis pressed, wondering whether such statements compromised Bradley’s ability to conduct a fair investigation, the ornery prosecutor went on the attack. He pointed out that Ellis serves as chair of the Innocence Project’s board. “I think that is a conflict of interest,” he said. And Bradley implied that Ellis held preconceived opinions that Willingham is innocence.

Ellis shot back: And you have no preconceived opinions? “After all,” Ellis said, “you are John Bradley—God’s gift to us.”

At this point, Sen. Bob Deuell—the Republican chair of the Nominations Committee—interjected and asked both men to be more civil. Both did tone it down.

After Bradley finished dueling with Ellis, reporters rushed into the hall to hear Bradley stonewall their questions. While they were out of the hearing room, they missed the testimony of Anthony Robinson, who spent 13 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Since his exoneration in 2000, Robinson has earned a law degree and said he currently works on immigration cases. Robinson pleaded with the committee to make the Forensic Science Commission follow its mandate—to learn from the flaws and past mistakes with forensic evidence, and ensure they don’t happen again.

That is the real import of today’s hearing. In the end, the Nominations Committee approved Bradley on a 4-2 vote. He now goes before the full Senate, where he’s likely to be confirmed as well. (The Senate has rejected only one of Gov. Perry’s nominees in recent years.)

So today’s hearing provided excellent political theater. But that’s all it was.

The lingering—and most important—question is whether the Forensic Science Commission will pick up its pace. It’s handled just three cases since 2007. There are many more instances of flawed forensics in this state to be investigated—especially among arson cases. It may fall to the other eight members to force the commission to tackle more cases. It doesn’t appear Bradley has the appetite for unearthing forensic misconduct. And he damn sure won’t be bullied into doing it.

Update: A reader pointed out that nominees require a two-thirds vote in the Senate to win confirmation. That means Bradley will have to gain support from 21 senators (all 19 Republicans and two Democrats) when his nomination reaches the floor. I still would be surprised if he wasn’t confirmed. As I mentioned above, the Senate almost never rejects an appointee, no matter how controversial (the famous exception being SBOE Chair Don McLeroy). But Bradley’s confirmation isn’t assured. 

John Bradley to Face Senators on Monday

Controversial chair of the Forensic Science Commission comes before Nominations Committee

On Monday, the state’s most controversial prosecutor will stand trial himself.

John Bradley—Williamson County DA and chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission—will have his state Senate confirmation hearing on Monday morning before the Nominations Committee. (The committee hearing notice was just posted today.)

The Senate must approve the governor’s appointments, and Bradley is no different. He will likely win Senate confirmation. Nearly all appointees do—even the most controversial. (In recent years, only former State Board of Education Chair Don McLeroy was rejected by the Senate.) Still, Bradley will likely hear a good bit of criticism during his confirmation process.  

He has many critics inside and outside the Capitol, and he’s garnered a reputation as one of the most ornery public servants in the state.

His very appointment in late September 2009 was controversial. Bradley took over as part of a house-cleaning of the Forensic Science Commission by Gov. Rick Perry. Bradley promptly canceled a hearing on flawed arson evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham case. Critics accused the governor of a coverup and trying to stall the Willingham investigation.

In the past 18 months, Bradley has repeatedly hampered the commission’s work on the Willingham case. In fact, the inquiry has proceeded only because the rest of the commission openly revolted against Bradley’s attempts to short-circuit the investigation. At meetings, he’s badgered witnesses and condescended to other commissioners. At times, he’s seemingly been skeptical of the commission’s very existence.

On Monday morning, senators and the public will get their chance to critique Bradley’s performance. It should be quite the show.

They had three minutes to share their life stories. Just 180 seconds to describe all that had befallen them. The details were different. Some were parents of the mentally disabled, some ran group homes and treatment centers, others were dealing with severe mental illness or recovering from traumatic brain injuries. But they all came before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday and Thursday with the same message: Don’t cut funding for programs that are saving lives.

The sheer number of people signed up to provide public testimony on the health and human services section of Senate Bill 1—the draft state budget—necessitated a time limit of three minutes. More than 200 testified during nearly 15 hours spread over two days. Every legislative session, public testimony on the budget provides long days of emotionally intense hearings. But this year is different. State lawmakers face an unprecedented $27 billion budget shortfall, and Republican leaders have announced their intention to balance the budget without raising taxes, which means frightening cuts to programs for the state’s most vulnerable. And those vulnerable citizens—and their parents and caregivers and advocates—turned out to decry the draft Senate budget released last week. It was an outpouring of raw emotion—snapshots of human misery and triumph—the likes of which senators on the dais said they’d never seen.

Ruth Hansen took Wednesday off from her job as a secretary at an Austin elementary school and waited all day to speak her three minutes. Her daughter Andrea has down syndrome. Ruth and her husband had always cared for her at home. But as they grew older, they began to worry what would happen to Andrea when they were gone. They put her name on a waiting list for a state waiver program that would pay for Andrea to live in a group home. The demand for community-based care in Texas has long outstripped the available funds. And Andrea’s name lingered on that waiting list for 13 years.

Finally, in June 2008, Andrea, then 29, reached the top of the list. She gained a slot in a Medicaid waiver program that allowed her to live in an Austin group home with two other disabled women. She’s been there three years and couldn’t be happier, Ruth said. “They are very caring, very attentive. It’s almost like family.” Andrea goes to dances, has made friends, even met a boy. Ruth doesn’t know how long she and her husband, who’s been diagnosed with bladder cancer, will be around to care for her daughter. “We’re getting older,” Ruth said. “I know she has safe care, a beautiful life.”

The senators will decide if that continues. Andrea’s group home—like so many other providers in the state—is facing a 29-percent cut in funding under the proposed Senate budget. If the 29 percent cut goes into effect, Andrea’s group home—and many others around the state—will close. “Could your family survive on a 29-percent cut?” Ruth asked the senators.

The two days of testimony seemed to affect all the senators, both Republicans and Democrats. Committee Chair Steve Ogden, a Republican from Bryan, seemed especially moved by Wally and Peggy Van Wyk, a couple in their 80s who testified late Wednesday. They adopted their daughter Laura in 1958. Like many, they pleaded with senators not to cut funding for the community home where Laura, who has cerebral palsy, has lived happily for decades.

When the Van Wyks finished speaking, Ogden said he’d just read the couple’s written testimony and wanted to point out a section to the committee. He read aloud how the Van Wyks were told in 1958 that because of complications during birth, Laura would have cerebral palsy, damaged vision and a soft spot in her skull. She couldn’t walk or eat solid food for two years. But they had accepted her as she was. Ogden looked up from the paper. “Fifty-three years later, my hat’s off to y’all because you’re still fighting for her,” he said. Then he paused and added, “We’ll do our best to make sure we don’t harm her.”

Every senator said they couldn’t envision instituting cuts that would harm the disabled and mentally ill. But they will have to find billions to make up the shortfall. They can’t cut eligibility for Medicaid—that’s forbidden by the national health care reform—so one of their only options is to cut the rates paid to providers through Medicaid. That would affect treatment centers, group homes, ambulance services, doctors, nursing homes, you name it.

To avoid the rate cuts, senators will have to find more money somewhere. The Republicans on the panel said they refuse to raise taxes and are looking for government efficiencies. “If we find enough change in the cracks in the couch, it will really add up,” said Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls. There are certainly inefficiencies in Texas government, but most budget analysts don’t believe eliminating waste alone would save enough money to cover the shortfall.

Many of the advocates and parents, including self-described Republicans, argued for higher taxes. David Walker, the county attorney in the conservative Houston suburb of Montgomery County, testified that his county had just built a treatment center to divert mentally ill offenders from jail. “If there must be budget cuts, let’s not cut human beings,” he said. “My Lord Jesus tells me ‘What you do unto the least of my brethren, you do unto me.’ I believe that and that’s why I’m here. If it means raising taxes, then raise mine first.”

In This Budget, No Good Options

If you want to understand the consequences of balancing Texas’ budget without raising taxes, just listen to Anne Heiligenstein. She provided the best description I’ve heard yet of the twisted math at work in the Capitol.

Heiligenstein heads the Department of Family and Protective Services, which runs the state’s foster care system and Adult Protective Services, among other programs. She appeared on Tuesday morning before the Senate Finance Committee to describe how her department planned to deal with a massive drop in funding.

Republicans in the Legislature are trying to close a $27 billion budget hole without raising taxes. State leaders such as Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have assured us the budget can be balanced without harming “essential” services.

It falls to the budget-writing committees to figure out what constitutes “essential.” We can’t pay for all the state’s current services—not without raising taxes. And Texas already spends less per resident than nearly every other state. So almost all our spending could already be considered essential.

The question hanging over the committee hearings the past two days was: Who’s most essential? Who’s most desperate for help—the abused children or the nursing home residents or the emotionally disturbed kids who might need help soon or the mentally ill? How do you decide whose program takes precedence?

It’s a sick game to play, but these are the questions lawmakers will have to consider.

As Heiligenstein noted, the initial Senate budget plan would result in a 12 percent cut in the amount of money her agency pays residential treatment centers to care for foster kids. The pay cut could cause some treatment centers to refuse to work with the state because they’d lose too much money on the deal. As it stands now, the state pays treatment centers only about 80 percent of the cost of caring for foster kids. If that rate drops 12 percent, and the state can’t find treatment centers to take kids, we’ll probably end up with hundreds of foster children sleeping in state offices. (This actually happened in 2007, when 611 kids stayed in state offices—a disturbing outcome that lawmakers rectified with increased funding. This year only 12 kids slept on sofas.)

Heiligenstein is begging the Legislature not to force her to undo that progress. Preventing a 12 percent provider rate reduction was one of Heiligenstein’s top budget requests.

But it’s not the only program facing cuts, of course. She then observed that the draft budget would force a 40 percent cut to prevention programs that help keep kids out of foster care. The state’s successful kinship care program—which helps abused children stay with relatives like grandparents, and aunts and uncles so they don’t end up with a foster family—would be zeroed out. The prevention programs not only lead to better results for kids, but by keeping children out of foster care, they save the state money in the long run.

Some of the senators grilled Heiligenstein on why she wasn’t prioritizing prevention programs. In her answer, she hit on the ludicrous choices she faces.

“I have this house on fire over here,” she said, referring to proposed foster care cuts that might lead to kids sleeping on sofas in state offices. She then termed cuts to prevention programs “a house with bad wiring that might be on fire in a couple of years…..I made the decision to deal with the house that’s on fire right now.”

And there you have it—the 2011 budget process in summary: Burn down your house now or burn it down in a couple of years. The budget process comes down to deciding which outcome is less bad. .

That was just one agency. A few hours later, officials from the Department of Aging and Disability Services made their case. They said the draft Senate budget would lead to a 33 percent cut in Medicaid payments to nursing homes.

Keep in mind that at least 70 percent of residents in 550 Texas nursing homes are on Medicaid. We’re talking a lot of seniors. How, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) asked, can nursing homes reduce costs that much? There’s no magic answer, the bureaucrats said. Nursing homes would have to serve less food, hire fewer nurses, check the patients less often. “I think a 33 percent reduction in nursing home rates isn’t practical,” concluded Tom Suehs, who oversees all health and human service agencies in Texas.

Of course, if the state fully funds Medicaid rates for nursing homes, that takes money from another vital area. There are many other programs facing  cuts that aren’t “practical.” Budget writers are proposing closing a state hospital for the mentally ill. And community mental health centers, which provide outpatient treatment and already have a huge waiting list, are facing a 40 percent cut in funding.

So, who’s less essential? The abused kids, the nursing home residents, the mentally ill, the Medicaid recipients? After just two days of hearings, it’s already clear that legislators either must tap the Rainy Day Fund and raise more revenue—or they will have to employ some twisted logic to decide whose program gets cut. There will be no good options, only less bad ones.

Williams Jumps In for Senate

You can officially count Michael Williams in. The Texas Railroad Commissioner—known for his fiery speeches and ever-present bow tie—announced this morning that he’s joining the fast-growing Republican primary field to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate.

Looking resplendent in a polka-dotted bow tie, Williams made his candidacy official during a sit-down with the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith in downtown Austin. (The video will be posted here.)

After announcing his intention to run, Williams answered questions from Smith and the audience for about an hour. Williams came as advertised—conservative, market-oriented, generally against government regulation, pro fossil fuels and unconvinced that humans are causing climate change. Predictably, he criticized Obama administration policies; he said he’d vote to repeal the health care law.

Williams has long seemed like he’d make a formidable candidate in a Republican Senate primary. His energy-industry connections will undoubtedly help his fundraising. And he’s a popular figure among the party’s grassroots. Whether he’ll fulfill that potential remains to be seen.

His performance this morning was smooth, but largely unremarkable. Perhaps his most memorable line came in response to a question about climate change. Williams said he doesn’t believe that humans are responsible for the rise in carbon dioxide levels. That’s not a surprising position. In his years on the Railroad Commission—from which he just recently resigned effective this spring—Williams has been a vocal climate change skeptic. When Smith followed up and asked, “So we can put it down that you don’t believe in climate change?”

“You can put it down and you can underline it,” Williams said.

He was reluctant to discuss the political dynamics of the race. He did say he expects to raise and spend between $7 million and $8 million on the primary alone, but sidestepped several questions about Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former solicitor general Ted Cruz, two of his opponents for the GOP nomination. Of course, the primary is still 13 months away, so there’s plenty of time for criticizing his opponents. The 2012 Republican Senate primary is looking like it will be a rollicking campaign, and Williams is one of the more charismatic entrants.

David Dewhurst vs. Reality

David Dewhurst sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal at times during his inaugural speech today on the south steps of the Capitol.

In his speech, Dewhurst promised that Texans would have a “world-class education.”

He vowed to “help those who have no one else to help them, to ensure that the promise of opportunity is available to all without favoring the few.”

He reminded the audience to never forget the most “vulnerable in our society— helpless, hopeless, jobless. I want everybody—everybody—to have the opportunity to be all they can be. The best investments that we can do are investments that give Texans the tools for self-sufficiency: A world-class education, quality, affordable health care, a stable dependable business climate…. These are the kinds of investments that we must make in good times and in bad.”

He promised just about everything—except a way to pay for it all.

True to his fiscal conservatism, Dewhurst declared, “We’ll achieve all these goals. And did I mention? We’ll balance our budget without raising taxes.”

I must be missing something. But how can we pay for all these goodies and close a $27 billion budget gap without raising taxes?

The answer is we can’t. Cutting $27 billion from the budget will have very real, very harmful consequences for the state.

(By the way, Gov. Rick Perry made a similarly odd statement in his speech, as my colleague Abby Rapoport chronicled in this post: “As Texans, we always take care of the least among our population—the frail, the young, the elderly. The people on fixed income. Those in situations of abuse and neglect. We’ve always done that. People whose needs are greater than the resources at their disposal. They can count on the people of Texas to be there for them. We’re going to protect them, support them, empower them. But we cannot risk the future of millions of taxpayers in the process. We must cut spending to keep our economic engine on track.”)

If Dewhurst and Perry want to argue that it’s better to keep taxes low and skimp on services, fair enough. That fits with the conservative ideology on which they were elected. But it’s simply not possible to cut state spending by a fourth and still provide “opportunity” for the vulnerable in our society.

If we cut our way to a balanced budget, some of those vulnerable people will be left to fend for themselves and end up living under bridges. It’s just how the system works. We can either pay for services or hold on to our tax money. Those are the options. There isn’t a magical third solution—not for a budget deficit this big. We can’t trick our way out of it or find $27 billion worth of “efficiencies,” because they don’t exist. And if we choose to hold on to our tax money, the vulnerable that Dewhurst professed to care so much about will be harmed.

To pretend otherwise is wishful thinking.

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