Rep. Mike Villarreal on the ongoing budget battle and why community organizing might be our last hedge against deep cuts

Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, chimed in last week at an appropriations committee hearing soon after Gov. Rick Perry and House GOP leaders announced they’d agreed to use a third of the state’s $9 billion Rainy Day Fund to cover our current 2010-2011 budget gap. “Is this just about trying to prevent a financial embarrassment?” he questioned.

The move means Texas is now able to pay its bills through the rest of the biennium, which comes to a close at the end of August. But the message from Perry’s camp was clear: don’t even think of touching the Rainy Day Fund to help balance the 2012-2013 budget, where as it stands lawmakers would have to cut over $20 billion from public schools, higher education, and state health services to keep Texas out of the red.

Immediately following the decision, Villarreal released this statement: “The Governor doesn't mind using the Fund to avoid the embarrassment of not paying our bills for the next five months, but he refuses to use a single dime from the Fund to limit the damage to our children's schools. The Governor believes the Rainy Day Fund is designed to save his political career but not save our schools."

In an interview with the Current last week, Villarreal said he’s now setting his sights on winning the war of information in this year’s budget battle, insisting the stakes couldn’t be higher. According to recent numbers from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the current House budget leaves Bexar County $2.2 billion short of keeping up with current Health and Human Services needs, and the estimated $500 million in cuts to Bexar County school districts would leave close to 15,000 public and private sector workers out of a job.

Part of the battle is explaining how we got into this mess, Villarreal said, pointing to what he and many others have called a structural deficit that was exacerbated by poor state planning. An analysis of the past three fiscal years shows a swelling budget shortfall that was plugged either by federal stimulus dollars or dwindling reserves from prior fund balances and a property tax relief fund — options that don’t exist today.

Villarreal, for his part, has thrown his weight behind reforming Texas’ tax code, saying unnecessary corporate tax giveaways are helping bankrupt the state. One of Villarreal’s bills, now out of committee, would end one such $10 million giveaway, enough to pay for 2,000 TEXAS Grants for college students, he says.

Villarreal now hopes to arm his constituents with the facts and figures they need to effectively join the fight, hosting a community organizing meeting this Saturday morning aimed at teaching local activists how to push state leaders toward a “more reasonable” budget approach, he said. Given the light bench of progressives and Democrats at the Capitol this year, community organizing, Villarreal said, is now the best chance advocates have to mitigate the damage.

Below are some highlights from the conversation.

This week, Perry and camp agreed to use Rainy Day money to cover the state’s current obligations…

What my Republican colleagues did was they used the Rainy Day Fund to save face. It would be a political embarrassment to not pay the state’s bills before August. They’re willing to save their political careers and use the Rainy Day Fund. But they’re not willing to use the Rainy Day Fund to save our schools, and that’s the tragedy. That’s what is irresponsible.


They paint it as a concession. You don’t see it that way?

I think it’s political posturing. What are passing as acceptable options are all the way on the right of the political spectrum, and what we need the public to know is that there are more options that, for example, include scrubbing the tax code of tax exemptions, generating more recurring dollars so that this budget hole we’re experiencing today doesn’t persist in the future. I think right now they’re making us have the debate where it’s like, “Ok, which do you like more? Pre-K or seniors in nursing homes?” And it’s like, really? That’s the choice? That’s a false choice. How about we have the conversation, “Do you like Pre-K or this tax loophole for this special interest group?” That’s really a more appropriate choice to put before the voters.

In the end, this budget zeroes out all instructional materials for the more difficult tests that are about to come online. This budget removes about $26,000 for every classroom. Right now, on average, every classroom gets by on about $100,000. That’s a big chunk, about 25 percent missing. And let’s step back and think about financial aid. TEXAS Grants: if you happen to be an unfortunate member of the senior class this year, there’s no TEXAS Grant for 2012-2013. And the way the program works is if you don’t get it your freshman year, you don’t get it your sophomore, junior, or senior year. And this is at a time when universities are widely going to respond to a cut in their state allocation by increasing tuition. So it’s going to be a double whammy for those students. It’s going to become more costly to go to college, and we just removed the single most important strategy we have to make college affordable.


Do you think Perry and the right might eventually ease up and use some of the Rainy Day Money to soften FY 2012-2013 cuts?

Yes, I think if you read closely. I think it’s progress, but it’s not enough. Even if we use the entire Rainy Day Fund, around $9 billion, the hole in our budget is $27 billion… `The Rainy Day Fund` could be totally used and still not plug the hole in our public education budget — that hole is about $10 billion. The commissioner for State Health and Human Services `Tom Suehs` says the very minimum he needs is $6 billion to make sure that not too many nursing homes close, to be in compliance with the federal government because we have to in order to draw down federal Medicaid dollars. And so I think the message that I’m trying to communicate to people is we need to demand more from our legislative leaders. Don’t give me this “Oh, well maybe we’ll tap the Rainy Day Fund” stuff. We actually need to do a lot better than that if were going to keep true to some goals that the state has set for itself.

Or maybe we need to have a conversation about lowering our goals. Maybe we drop the idea that we should grow the proportion of Texans going to college. Maybe we should drop the idea that we’re going to compete with other states and other nations for growing quality jobs that require a skilled workforce. Is that no longer important? Oh, and roads? Ok, should we just not have a statewide uniform road system? Does it no longer matter if we take care of our seniors in nursing homes? Is that what you want? Because, if it’s not, then we’ve got to do a whole lot better.


What leverage, if any, do Democrats have at this point? 

I think we are making progress and we should know that our time horizon is not the end of this legislative session. It’s a two-year horizon at a minimum. I would actually say we need to set 10-year goals, and we need to have two-year markers of progress. If our current leaders of today fail to pass a moral budget, then we need to make them leaders of yesterday come election time. And we’re only going to be able to achieve that milestone if voters learn what the real options are to prevent devastating cuts in education, and healthcare services for the disabled and our seniors. If people don’t learn today that these leaders could have made different decisions, then it’s going to be harder to explain that in two years. And the truth of the matter is there are many of my Republican colleagues who want to do the right thing, but they’ve painted themselves into a corner. Many of their constituents believe, and polls have backed this up, that they want to be able to not cut public education while cutting taxes at the same time. That’s just not possible.


Do you think this session is breaking that myth?

I think so, I think it’s beginning to. I believe what the times call for today is a village explainer in all of us. We need to explain to our brothers, sisters, moms, and dads the real facts of the situation. Like, I had a debate this morning with a guy from the Tea Party, and the first thing he said was, “The state has too much debt.” `Laughter` No man, we do not print money, that’s the federal government. We do not balance our budget with debt, we just don’t. We actually have to match payable revenue with expected expenses. Or, the idea that there’s lavish spending at the state? Dude, `more laughter` we’re 50 out of 50 `for per capita state spending`. What are you talking about?

I think what the times call for is being a part of this debate in an informed way and helping folks understand that there are other options that need to be placed on the table to balance this budget in a reasonable way. That yes, there need to be cuts, but we need to use the Rainy Day Fund almost entirely and we need to put new revenue on the table that can come from eliminating tax loopholes that leak billions of dollars from the state and treat one taxpayer differently than another. Those are all real options that aren’t being debated today.


`Appropriations Chair Jim` Pitts calls the $23 billion or so the House would still cut for 2012-2013 “devastating,” but has he indicated what his plan is? Any clue what he’d be willing to advocate for?

`Shakes his head` No, not at all.


Nothing? Just “devastating,” period?

Yea. I mean, in committee, he said he had a plan, but I haven’t learned of it. And let me tell you, I think Jim really wants to do the right thing. If I had my choice of any of the Republicans to be in that position, Jim Pitts would be at the top of my list. But he is working within certain constraints. Namely, a supermajority of Republicans who seem to be determined to balance this budget purely with cuts. So there are certain political realities he has to work within.


What has been the impact of the advocates flooding committee hearings, protests outside the Capitol?

The impact is that more Texans understand our financial crisis. Many more now know there’s a structural, permanent revenue shortfall that’s going to persist into next year if it doesn’t get fixed. And many more understand the real human consequences of these cuts. And I think we will see that play out, if not this round of decision making, then come election time.


But if it doesn’t play out this round, there are some very real consequences …

There are. And the voters need to decide if this is what they really wanted. And if not, they need to send a new set of leaders to Austin next election cycle.

There’s this conversation we could be having if voters in every legislative district show up to the Capitol and say, “Hey, mister representative, are you really going to allow this tax loophole to persist at a time when we’re seeing devastating cuts to schools?” I think when your own constituents show up and present you with the facts and ask you to make a choice, you can’t ignore that, and it can’t be ignored.


Villarreal will host the community organizing meeting 9:30am  to noon Saturday, March 26, at the VIA Metro Center on 1021 San Pedro Avenue. For more information, call Villarreal’s office at (210) 734-8937.

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