For Texas’ growing Hispanic community, the galvanizing issue of the 82nd Legislature was the Republican push to ban so-called “sanctuary cities.” The legislation, designated by Gov. Rick Perry as an emergency item during the regular session, allowed law enforcement to check for citizenship status.
Hispanics worried that the law, with its echoes of Arizona-style policing, would open the door to widespread racial-profiling.
During a memorable, 10-hour House debate in early May, the passions of outnumbered Hispanic lawmakers reached a peak. Some cried. Some shouted. Some tried to reason with Anglo Republican legislators determined to “do something” about illegal immigration—even if their bill was likely unconstitutional, and despite opposition from local law enforcement. San Antonio Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer, chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, told reporters after the debate: “This bill is the single largest assault on being Latino in Texas.”
It was powerful rhetoric, and partly true. The bill making sanctuary cities illegal, which ultimately failed, had serious civil-rights implications (only to be revived during special session, where it will most likely pass—see blog update). But a far greater assault on Hispanic Texans came in more pedestrian form: the state budget. Fifteen billion dollars in cuts to public schools and health and human services programs will dampen the dreams and impoverish the lives of millions of Texans. The cuts will disproportionately affect Hispanics, who make up a majority of the state’s schoolchildren and Medicaid recipients—and who are, literally, the future of the state. As Democratic Rep. Mike Villarreal of San Antonio told the Observer during the final week of budget debate, “We need to be making budget decisions that are right by our children, no matter their ethnicity or race. That being said, the kids most reliant on state investment are Hispanic kids because they make up the largest share of younger Texans.”
For years, Steve Murdock, the state’s demographer under Gov. George W. Bush, had been telling anyone who would listen that Texas was heading for ruin if the state didn’t spend the money to educate its growing Hispanic population. Texas would become a poorer, less competitive state, he warned. He told lawmakers over and over—at hearings, policy forums and private meetings—about the dire consequences if they did nothing to address the gaping education and income divides.
He never thought they’d make it worse.
To Murdock’s dismay, that’s what the Legislature has done. The 2012-13 budget, which is still being negotiated in a special session, relies heavily on spending cuts to close a $23 billion shortfall. It chops $4 billion from public schools, $1 billion from higher education and underfunds Medicaid by $5 billion. “I’m very, very disappointed,” Murdock says. “This is not something that Texas can afford to do, and the risks we’re taking come with very severe consequences.”
Latinos in Texas are disproportionately poor and tend to lack access to health care. Consider these numbers: At least 40 percent of Hispanics lack health insurance. Latinos comprise 38 percent of Texas’ population, but 54 percent of its Medicaid recipients, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. More than 53 percent of Texans living in poverty are Hispanic. Education is the No. 1 tool to bring them out of poverty, Murdock says. Without access to quality education, the economic gap will grow bigger. “The children of Texas are our future, and two out of every three are non-Anglo,” he says.
The biggest mistake lawmakers made this session, Murdock says, was not using some of the $9 billion-plus in the Rainy Day Fund to fund education in the 2012-13 budget. Only 72 percent of Texas high school students graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s one of the nation’s lowest rates. It’s much lower for Latinos. Hispanic students are twice as likely as Anglos to drop out of high school.
Such a situation portends a poorly educated workforce in Texas’ future. A decade ago, Murdock estimated that by 2040, at least 30 percent of the workforce would lack high school diplomas if Texas did nothing to close its education gap. With the latest round of budget cuts, that number is likely to increase.
The outlook for higher education could actually be worse. Partly because of Murdock’s dire predictions, lawmakers realized a decade ago that Texas needed to expand access to college. In 2000, Hispanic college enrollment was just 3.7 percent of the Hispanic population, while 5.1 percent of Anglos were enrolled. The disparity was mostly due to cost. So in 2000, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board created the “Closing the Gaps” program to boost minority enrollment. The goal was to enroll 5.7 percent of Texas’ Hispanic population by 2015. Last year the board reported that it was not meeting its goals. The percentage of Hispanics in college had increased to an encouraging 4.4 percent, but remained 263,000 students short of the target for 2010.
In response, lawmakers made things worse. They slashed the number of scholarships by 43,000 students, with 29,000 coming from the Texas Grants program that provides college money to middle and low-income Texans. “It’s very worrisome to see it cut,” Murdock says. “This program has really been effective in getting students enrolled in college.”
Murdock isn’t the only expert sounding the alarm. In March, Raymund Paredes, the commissioner of higher education, testified during a legislative hearing that cuts to Texas Grants would lead to a “lost generation” of students, according to the San Antonio Express-News. The students most affected would be from low-income homes, in many cases the first in their families to attend college. Many had already been through college readiness courses and taken placement exams, Paredes told the legislators. Prospective students had already been told that scholarships were available if they needed them. “We are shutting the door,” Paredes said. “These students are capable, bright, ambitious, but they need help. If we don’t help them, we will suffer consequences down the road.”
“Immediately, the word that comes to mind with this budget for me is ‘selfishness,’” Villarreal told me in the House chamber. It was the last week of session, and Villarreal, recited to me the crippling cuts and losses to education, health care and other government-subsidized programs. “Next biennium, 43,000 less students will receive college scholarships, they zeroed out the pre-k education program, and Medicaid will run out of funding by late 2012,” he said.
Texas could have taken a less damaging route in reckoning with its $27 billion budget gap. In the House, Villarreal tried to persuade the Republican supermajority to close tax loopholes and use the Rainy Day Fund. “It’s there to stabilize basic state services—that’s what it’s supposed to be used for,” Villarreal said. “But my Republican colleagues have chosen not to spend a single dime to mitigate the cuts over the next two years. It’s become a litmus test for what it means to be a conservative.”
The leadership had rejected closing tax loopholes to put some money back into education or health budgets. Earlier in the session, Villarreal had convened a hearing to consider doing away with a $1.2 billion-a-year tax exemption for natural gas producers. The purpose was to close the loophole for large energy companies to mitigate public school cuts. “It’s a tax exemption that we can no longer afford,” Villarreal says. “So I gave my colleagues an opportunity to decide whether the priority was education, but they chose to preserve the tax loophole, and the consequence is deeper cuts to education.”
The cut that especially galled Villarreal was the zeroing-out of the pre-kindergarten Early Start Grant program for public schools. The program prepares preschoolers who speak English as a second language for kindergarten. It also helps preschoolers who are homeless, foster children, military kids and those who come from backgrounds of extreme economic hardship. From 2010 to 2011, more than 101,000 pre-k students participated in the program, according to the Texas Education Agency. Now many schools will cut pre-k programs. The majority of the students affected will be Latino.
“It’s a terrible and crazy thing,” Villarreal says, shaking his head. “All of the research tells us the earlier you invest in education, the less you have to spend later.” This session’s budget was a “failure and a betrayal to our Texas school children and basic Texas values,” he says. It was ironic, Villarreal points out, that many House members had benefited from the same government-subsidized schools they were destroying. “We benefited from prior generations providing for our public schools and universities,” he says. “All that was asked of us was that we do the same, but this session we dropped the torch.”
The unfairness didn’t stop with education. Legislators cut health and human service programs by 17 percent from the previous budget cycle. Some of the steepest cuts were to family planning, which had its budget reduced from $111 million to $38 million. More than 284,000 women could lose family planning services, resulting in more unplanned pregnancies that will affect Hispanic families disproportionately. Young Latinas in Texas accounted for 62 percent of the births to teen mothers in 2006, the most current year reported by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Medicaid also took huge cuts. Underfunded by nearly $5 billion, Medicaid is used more by Hispanics than other Texans. Hispanic patients along the Texas-Mexico border were preparing for a double whammy, says Rep. Veronica Gonzales, a Democrat from McAllen. In addition to the $5 billion reduction, a new, state-mandated Medicaid HMO will be rolled out in Hidalgo County, where her district is located. Gonzales worries that medicaid cuts will force much-needed health-care providers out of the Rio Grande Valley. Her district is 85 percent Hispanic, and more than 80 percent of patients in the region qualify for Medicaid. State lawmakers who supported the legislation said they hoped to save an estimated $400 million, but creating the HMO district could have numerous unintended consequences that will affect the quality of life for Hispanic patients, Gonzales says.
“At the minimum, we’re going to see delays in care and the denial of certain tests,” she says. “We have a high rate of diabetes, heart and kidney disease—so if care is delayed, it’s going to have a real impact on people’s lives.”
Gonzales says she found it strange that the Legislature seemed so hostile toward the state’s fastest-growing demographic. “There seems to be a push-back due to the growth of Latinos in Texas,” she says.
The takeaway message for Hispanics from the wreckage of the 82nd legislative session and its ruinous budget is voter participation, Gonzales says. If Hispanic families want the Legislature to reflect more of their values, they need to participate in the electoral process. “Hispanics need to realize the impact of legislation. If you want to have a voice, you have to vote,” she says, “because if you don’t vote, you’re giving people permission to pass legislation that might be against your best interests.”