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Will Next Budget Be Worse Than 2003?

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Texas’ budget situation is looking downright frightening.

If you thought the 2003 session was bad—when the state faced a $10 billion budget shortfall—you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The estimates for next session’s budget deficit keep rising—$11 billion, $12 billion, $15 billion. Earlier this week, House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts said the deficit could balloon to $18 billion—nearly double the shortfall of 2003. That’s a terrifying concept.

Those of us who lived through the 2003 session remember the damage inflicted on the state by the deep budget cuts that year. Refusing to raise taxes—though they did hike a number of “fees,” but that’s a separate issue—Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature closed the gap mainly through accounting tricks and spending cuts. Lawmakers sliced more than $1 billion out of education and $6 billion from health and human services, according to state budget analysts (hat tip to the Statesman). Other key state functions were privatized—in some cases, with disastrous results.

The 2003 budget didn’t do the state well. One of the most famous consequences was that hundreds of thousands of kids lost state-sponsored health insurance. But the budget cuts affected nearly every corner of Texas life.

My personal favorite—the budget choice that won the award for pure meanness—was lawmakers’ decision to cut nursing home residents’ monthly “personal needs” allowance from $60 to $45. Suddenly nursing home patients had less money to buy personal items the nursing home didn’t supply, like shampoo, toothpaste and shoes.

Taking money from elderly nursing home residents proved such a debacle that the Legislature quickly restored the funds in 2005. So it was with many line items. Lawmakers spent much of the 2005 and 2007 sessions trying to fix the damage inflicted by the 2003 budget. Some programs have recovered; some haven’t.

It’s taken seven years for the Children’s Health Insurance Program enrollment to return to its 2002 levels (and all the while, the state’s uninsured population has grown).

Meanwhile, the system that enrolls people in food stamps and other government programs is still a mess, reeling from a disastrous plan that laid off thousands of state workers in favor of privately run call centers. The plan was hastily abandoned, but the damage had been done. Before 2003, the Texas food stamp program was a model of efficiency. It regularly won awards from the federal government for its low error rate. Now, the food stamp program is an embarrassment, as Corrie MacLaggan’s excellent reporting in the Statesman has shown.

House Speaker Joe Straus said this week he favored closing the budget gap without raising taxes. Surely, lawmakers will have to seek out new revenue sources—legalized gambling seems to be popular once again. But, if Straus is to be believed, the emphasis once again will be on reduced spending. And they can’t cut Medicaid and CHIP, like they did in 2003, because the newly passed national health care bill likely won’t allow it. That means deeper cuts in other programs.

We’re already seeing the effects, the result of 5 percent across-the-board cuts at state agencies. The University of Texas at Austin is laying off hundreds of staff and faculty. Health care at state prisons is suddenly in jeopardy, as Grits reports.

This is just the beginning. I honestly don’t know where lawmakers will find the cuts, and how bad the consequences will be. Texas already spends less per citizen than any other state in the nation.

I do know that cutting that much from the state budget—$10 billion, $15 billion, $18 billion, whatever the final figure—will negatively affect nearly everyone in this state for years to come.

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.