All week, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has been asking for a face to put to the proposed health and human service budget cuts. Well, Wednesday morning, he got what he wanted.
Despite Austin’s biting temperatures, crowds of advocates, providers, parents and service recipients from all corners of the state crowded in the Senate Finance Committee conference room to plead with lawmakers not to ax social service programs. The initial draft of the Senate budget has drastic cuts to health and human services in an effort to close the state’s $27 billion budget shortfall. So far this week, committee members heard the Health and Human Service Commission and its four departments lay out inevitable program cuts and staff layoffs should the proposed budget pass as is.
Hope Montgomery, mother of four from Richmond, Texas, brought her three identical daughters—all three diagnosed with autism—to wake up senators. The three girls, Lakin, Londyn and Lauren, squealed and giggled in contrast to their mother, who begged committee members to restore the Department of Assistive Rehabilitative Services’ autism grant funding and not cut early childhood intervention programs.
“It’s very difficult for our girls,” she said. “We would be in a very difficult situation without this program.” One of Montgomery’s daughters can’t speak, and the other two, she says, are on their way to not speaking. The girls receive early intervention and autism treatment from the Texana Behavioral Center in Rosenberg, near Houston. “Early intervention will help them,” she said. “On behalf of my family and other families, I beg you to not make these cuts.”
To ease some worries, Whitmire said the state doesn’t necessarily have to make such drastic cuts.
“We’re a wealthy state,” he said, adding that funding can also come from additional revenue and the Rainy Day Fund, a $9 billion state piggy bank for emergencies. Some Republican lawmakers have promised to balance the budget without adding or raising taxes and without tapping the Rainy Day Fund. “Your being here today will help us make better decisions,” Whitmire told witnesses.
Tim Graves, president of the Texas Healthcare Association that represents nursing homes and their residents, confirmed what many have feared all week—nursing homes will close should the proposed 10 percent Medicaid provider rate cuts pass this session. The bill also cuts $1.4 billion in spending for nursing homes and assisted living centers. Graves said 550 nursing homes have more than 70 percent of clients on Medicaid and provider rate cuts will only downgrade care and staff levels.
“The setting is not good,” he said. “You know I don’t cry wolf, but I just don’t see how this is going to work. I don’t know where these folks will go.”
Other witnesses included advocates from Texans Care for Children, AARP, Texas Association for Protection of Children as well as care providers, parents and program clients. When the committee broke recessed at 10:45 a.m., more than 100 witnesses had signed up to testify come this afternoon. The committee will also hear public testimony Thursday.