All summer, state comptroller Susan Combs has been on a barnstorming tour around Texas—from Allen to Waxahachie, Cypress Creek to San Angelo—armed with pie-chart poster-boards to describe the coming financial mess if we keep spending like we do on health care and schools.
Her message, in short: We’re spending more and more of our budget on those two items, and we can’t keep it up. Combs, who’s probably running for lieutenant governor in 2014, billed the events simply as budget-themed town halls—but there was a scary message about the “big red” threat of rising Medicaid costs.
She’s made dozens of these stops, sometimes a couple in a day, in rural towns and far-out suburbs. Here’s how she put it in Waxahachie, according to the Daily Light:
“I’m a big fan of public education, but I want all of the money in the classroom,” Combs said. “What that means is that we’re going to probably have to be more creative and innovative, because of the pressures on the national debt and the pressure from Medicaid.”
So here in Austin Wednesday morning, a coalition of healthcare and education groups gathered at the Capitol to try and beat back the idea that Texans have to choose between paying for schools or our growing demand for Medicaid. Texas Forward, a kind of public interest supergroup with dozens of members, organized the policy party, featuring bona fide lab-coated doctors side by side with teachers and union reps.
Combs, of course, wasn’t the only state official they’d come to debunk. Gov. Rick Perry announced way back in April that he wanted to see the Legislature find more ways to cut back on spending. As Forrest Wilder here at the Observer wrote over the summer, austerity has become a way of life that’s seeped into every budget decision here in Texas.
The group argued Wednesday that Medicaid is plenty efficient, and just as crucial as education, and we can pay for them both if the Legislature wants to. No longer, the group said, should we be turned doctor against teacher to fight over scraps from the state.
“It is wrong to mislead Texans into thinking they have to choose between health care and education or any other public service,” said Montserrat Garibay, vice president of the local teachers’ union Education Austin and a bilingual pre-K teacher. “Don’t let anyone tell you that the resources aren’t there to restore funding for both healthcare and education. The Legislature will have the wallet if it has the will.”
The comptroller has also projected Texas could have a revenue surplus of more than $5 billion, and Texas’ Rainy Day Fund is projected to reach about $8 billion after 2013. The Legislature still has $4.8 billion in Medicaid deferrals to cover next session, and $2.3 billion in school funding it’ll have to make up too. Then there’s the structural deficit of up to $5 billion that greets the Legislature every session. Adding all that together, budget watchers figure we just might come out about even when the next session starts.
Which is where the folks Wednesday made their big reach: that maybe, you know, it’s time to raise a little revenue. That kind of talk has been a long shot for years at the Legislature, but with Perry’s mandate to cut and a far more conservative Senate it’ll be an especially tough sell.
“What we’re asking collectively is that we move away from looking at cuts and more cuts to make our ends meet, and to really look at some revenue options,” said Texans Care for Children CEO Eileen Garcia. “During hard times, our Legislature says it’s time to tighten our belts. During good times, it’s still time to tighten those belts. It just becomes about how we move forward as a state…We’re there at the bottom of the barrel with poor states, and we’re not a poor state.”