Truth and Consequence

It was hard to hear the truth at the Lege over the self-congratulatory shouts of lawmakers praising their budget agreement. The Republican leadership crowed that through hard work and determination they had provided for basic needs and avoided raising taxes.

In reality, they have done neither.

To prove their point, legislators trumpeted the fact that they kept eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) at 200 percent. That means the children of families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $36,000 for a family of four) would still be eligible to receive state-sponsored health insurance. (Republican ideologues in the House wanted to drop the eligibility level to about $30,000 for a family of four). But this supposed magnanimity covers a darker truth.

In order to keep levels the same, lawmakers gutted the services the program covers, made it prohibitively difficult to access, and capped spending levels so they won’t rise when health care costs do. No longer will CHIP cover mental health treatment, wheelchairs, eye care, eyeglasses, dental care, allergy services, speech and physical therapy, and home health care. A service like speech therapy may not sound vital but try telling a child with cerebral palsy it’s not “necessary.” In order to access the few services left, families will have to wait 90 days between enrollment and being able to access the program. They will then have to re-enroll every six months (instead of yearly). In addition, needy families will have to pay higher co-pays and premium as well as pass an “asset test” to verify they don’t drive too nice a car.

The painful irony of these cuts is that fully funding CHIP wouldn’t cost very much. If the state spent $270 million more, CHIP would be whole again. (To put it in perspective, the budget for the biennium is about $117 billion.) The Lege could have easily generated that money with a $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax or if it simply closed the loophole that lets companies like Dell incorporate in Delaware and evade the state’s franchise tax. The Senate voted down those provisions on consecutive days in the session’s final week under the guise of “no new taxes.”

The Republican leadership’s boast that it didn’t raise taxes is utter fallacy. This legislature passed scores of new and elevated fees that Texans will now have to pay—everything from higher traffic tickets to new state charges for buying a home. But ultimately it will be local counties that pay the brunt of Austin’s irresponsible behavior. Where will those children end up when their parents can’t afford mental health services or primary health care? It will likely be county jails and hospitals. How will counties pay for the overflow? They will raise local taxes. We can only hope they tell residents to complain to their local state representative and then sweep the bums out of office come election day.

The sad truth behind the celebratory rhetoric is that lawmakers this session crafted a short-sighted budget that they balanced on the backs of the working poor. And now, all of Texas will suffer the consequences. —JB

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Published at 12:00 am CST