Classical Budgeting 101


It has been a long time coming for Tom Craddick, but somehow one suspects this is not exactly how he had envisioned beginning his reign as the new Speaker of the House. The state is facing (at least) a $9.9 billion budget shortfall, with $1.8 billion coming due in the next seven months. Craddick, of course, has been preaching fiscal austerity for almost thirty years now, but you can only cut your nails so short before they start bleeding. It seems almost certain that the Republican leadership will have to approve an emergency appropriation to get the state through the end of the fiscal year, though some longtime Rs, like Talmadge Heflin, seem to be having trouble wrapping their brains around that concept. Asked point blank about an emergency appropriation by a Democratic member, Heflin, Craddick’s likely choice to head House Appropriations, couldn’t bring himself to say it—at least not from the front microphone on the second day of the session.

The governor, too, seemed to be in a state of denial. At a January 16 press conference Perry was asked about the low-income HIV patients who were about to have their medication cut off as a result of a proposed eligibility restriction by the Health Depart-ment—part of the state-wide belt-tightening the governor’s office has requested. Perry called that a “doomsday scenario” based on conjecture. (The department’s board will vote on the measure next month.) The next day Perry pulled an unprecedented stunt, turning in a draft budget with nothing but zero’s in it. It will be up to each state agency to justify every penny it will spend, he declared, neatly sidestepping his obligation to recommend where he thinks the cutting should take place.

Yet some of the Rs, like the tribe of ultra-right wingers known as the Texas Conservative Coalition, seem to be licking their chops. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to stand before the Capitol press corps, as Senator Florence Shapiro, a co-chair of the coalition, did on January 16, and declare government spending in Texas “out of control.” Taking a cue from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who recently attributed the state’s budget shortfall in part to the “spending party” staged by the 77th Legislature, Shapiro told reporters in her signature croak that the state did not have a revenue problem, it had a spending problem. No, you didn’t miss a memo: Texas still ranks fiftieth out of fifty states in overall state spending per capita. We can only speculate that state rankings may not be the gold standard for the incoming leadership. How do we measure up with China, for example? This reporter did not get a chance to ask.

Coalition co-chair Carl Isett, the Lubbock representative, tried to explain how the “responsible” ap-proach to government differs from what we might call, for lack of a better term, the sensible approach. Isett said his followers favored what he called “a classical public health model,” in which basic functions, like providing clean drinking water for the public, for example, were considered responsible reforms; more advanced notions, like guaranteeing individual health, on the other hand, were not. Government’s job, Isett seemed to say, was to create the conditions in which good health might occur. Whether it actually did or not was apparently not of concern in the classic period (1930’s? 1890’s? ancient Greece?) to which we will shortly be returned.

Shapiro and Isett, joined by Arlene Wohlgemuth (R-Burleson), proudly unveiled “A Roadmap to Responsible Reform,” the result of a one-year study of the state budget. It’s a hefty document, but the highlights give just a little taste of what we might see moving through both chambers in the next few months: “estate recovery” from dead Medicaid recipients; reducing the re-application period for Medicaid from six months to three months; reducing the number of births paid for through Medicaid by tightening eligibility; and ending state oversight of nursing homes, just to name a few. Health and human services are always the first target, because they take up such a big portion of the budget. But as Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman told reporters after the press conference, you don’t really save money by making cuts at the state level; more often than not you just shift spending to local governments. You might save $5,000 in prenatal care and hospital fees for every pregnant mother you boot off the Medicaid rolls, for example, but medical expenses for just one low birth-weight baby can be millions, Coleman said. If “responsible” government prevails this session, county hospitals—and county taxpayers—will be paying for many more of those.