The Hangover Sets In

It’s been more than two months now since the Republican-crafted budget cuts began to take effect. Belatedly, Texas newspapers are filling their pages with social service horror stories. Local reporters who failed to follow state politics closely are learning an appalling truth: the decisions made in Austin during the last legislative session are going to kill low-income Texans.

The stories come from all corners of the state: Clinics everywhere are scaling back services. Pregnant women in El Paso are losing Medicaid coverage. The mentally ill in San Antonio are unable to find care. Hospitals in Fort Worth are buckling under the flood of uninsured patients and rising charity care costs.

These tragic stories beg the question, “Why weren’t more articles detailing the inevitable result of the legislature’s actions written when budget decisions were still being made?” It’s not as if social service advocates, state workers, and dozens of Democratic lawmakers (not to mention a handful of Republicans) didn’t warn anyone in the Capitol who would listen. But the Capitol press corps generally treated Democrats’ dire predictions as some form of partisan political spin “looming human catastrophe” versus Republican “belt tightening.”

What passes for most political reporting these days begins and ends with gamesmanship: who’s ahead, who’s behind, who has the power, and who’s scheming to get it. During the session, most Capitol reporters couched budget cuts in lifeless statistics. When the budget was written in conference committee last May, the major state dailies carried high-school-hallway-gossip pieces chronicling whether the House or the Senate was ahead in negotiations. What ever happened to old-fashioned reporting on how government policies affect the citizenry? No wonder so many mistakenly believe that government doesn’t matter.

Just as media coverage during the session neglected the human element, the horror stories now being written by hometown reporters fail to explain the political decisions that led to these drastic service cuts. Most stories blame faceless “government spending reductions” or some equally bland phrase that leaves readers thinking the budget cuts simply fell from the sky. Lawmakers didn’t have a choice, the mainstream press seems to imply.

Well, they did have a choice. While a $10 billion budget deficit no doubt required some spending caps, the leadership rejected bills that would have raised new revenue without burdening middle-class Texans. Simply closing the franchise-tax loophole or hiking the franchise tax loophole and raising the cigarette tax would have garnered the state billions, enough to keep CHIP and most of Medicaid whole.

Even before the session, Texas was shortchanging its citizens. In 2002, the state once again boasted the nation’s highest percentage of people without health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Last year, one in four Texans didn’t have health insurance. During the past two years, the number of uninsured Texans ballooned by 1.4 percent, the fourth-highest increase in the country. In the next two years, the legislature’s severe cuts to CHIP and Medicaid will deprive several hundred thousand more Texans of health insurance.

It’s not hard to imagine that in a few decades this very rich state will resemble a third-world nation. An elite group will live in gated communities. Armed guards will protect them from the majority of the population, a permanent underclass that lacks adequate education or health care. It’s not too late to prevent this future from coming to pass. But change can begin only when people make the connection between the budget choices the Republican leadership made in Austin during the last session and the reduced services at their local clinic and school.

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Published at 12:00 am CST