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Will Budget Cuts Lead to Lawsuits?

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So apparently there’s some sort of budget shortfall in Texas. You may have heard a news report or seven about it.

The new and improved Republican majority in the Legislature (now 101 House members and counting) will enter the 2011 session in a budget-cutting mood. GOP leaders have made clear they intend to cut every program in sight rather than raise taxes.

With Texas facing a shortfall that may reach $24 billion, according to some estimates, it’s likely that we’re about to see major reductions in spending—in a state that already spends less per resident than any state in the nation.

There’s one major potential problem with that strategy—you know, a problem besides the ones created by laying off teachers and depriving vulnerable Texans of state services. The problem I speak of is lawsuits.

Texas is under legal obligation not to reduce spending in two major areas. One is Texas’ institutions for the mentally disabled (formerly state schools, now called state-supported living centers). After a major abuse scandal, the state reached a deal in 2009 with the  U.S. Justice Department. The feds agreed not to sue us, if the Legislature boosted funding for the facilities and improved conditions. We’re still being held to that agreement. The Legislature can’t reduce funding for state schools without risking a court battle with the Justice Department.

The state is also under federal court order to improve its children’s Medicaid program. This is the so-called Frew lawsuit settlement reached in 2007. It’s unlikely the Lege could make reductions in children’s Medicaid without being dragged back into federal court.

Then there are the many other programs that, while not subject to a lawsuit right now, very well could be if deep cuts were implemented. Those include Child Protective Services, the Texas Youth Commission, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the entire public school system.

The GOP may be eager to cut spending. But it comes with a lot of legal risk.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.