Texas budget cuts pack a wallop for students, elderly, and the ill

If you’re like most people, you probably look at TV and newspaper stories about Texas’ anticipated $27 billion budget shortfall and the proposed budget cuts likely to come and your eyes glaze over before deciding, “Well, it won't affect me.”

Think again.

The Texas Legislative Budget Board last week released the first draft of a proposed budget for fiscal years 2012 and 2013. Now that legislators, school superintendents, hospital administrators, and community college leaders have had the chance to pick themselves up off the floor and assess the potential damage to public school instruction, medical care, and more, it is becoming clear that nearly every Texan will feel the squeeze.

Both secondary and higher education will take massive hits under the proposed budget. For San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD, a school district that has been the poster child (and lead plaintiff) for public education finance reform for the better part of the last three decades, the proposed budget will mean especially tough times. “We are very concerned about the budget cuts,” EISD Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth P. Garza said. “We pretty much saw it coming even the last biennium because the state relied on the federal government to bail the state out using stimulus dollars to balance the budget.”

Garza says EISD will likely be forced to lay off educators. “Laying off teachers is a two-edged sword. If we’re laying off, that means we’re not hiring, and think of what that will do to the economy in this region alone, not to mention that the state isn’t changing accountability standards or relaxing instruction rules. They are asking us to do more with less.”

She is also fearful the budget cuts will have a long-term impact on the state and its population. “They `legislators` need to get serious about the future of this state, and a lot of that has to do with education. Students are our future, and we need to be sure of the quality of their education so we can be sure of our own future.”

State Representative Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, says local taxpayers will end up being forced to pay for the state budget cuts. “When Representative `Jim` Pitts `R-Waxahachie` laid out the budget this week, I questioned him on where we would make up this money? Are there pieces of legislation that will be coming forth regarding removing the $1.17 `property tax` cap on school districts — because some of the districts I represent are already there,” Farias said.

He believes it is the intent of Republican leadership to remove the cap, thus forcing local school districts to raise their taxes.

Without any changes to the cap, however, Edgewood ISD, faces cuts with no new revenue. “We are already at the cap. We have nowhere else to go,” Garza said.

While none of Bexar County’s community colleges are on the chopping block (four across the state are), the proposed state budget cuts could make the future a lot less bright for as many as 4,000 county teens who depend on funding from TEXAS Grants to help pay for their college education.

According to statistics from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, provided to the Current by San Antonio State Representative Mike Villarreal’s office, D-San Antonio, roughly 111,000 students statewide received the grants during the current budget year. The proposed budget would slice that number down to around 60,000 students.

During fiscal year 2009 (the latest year for which statistics are available), 6.6 percent of TEXAS Grant recipients were graduates of high schools in Bexar County. Assuming that number has remained fairly consistent for 2010, you get roughly 4,000 high school graduates left out in the cold in 2012 and 2013.

TEXAS Grant funding cuts will hurt local colleges, too. A total of 5,483 students at The University of Texas at San Antonio, Northwest Vista College, St. Philip’s College, San Antonio College, and Palo Alto College received a combined total of $17.82 million in TEXAS Grants in FY 2009, according to TEHCB statistics provided by Villarreal’s office.

Bruce Leslie, Chancellor of the Alamo Colleges system, says that the reduction in TEXAS Grants will have an impact on the college's operations, but says that most people aren’t aware of how this financial aid loss will hurt students. “One of the things that is happening here more, and we’ve seen it a lot more than we have in the past, is that students are depending on these and other financial aid dollars not just to pay for tuition and books but to pay their rent and even mortgages. If you have a student who was laid off and is coming back to college, they depend on financial aid to stay solvent,” Leslie said.

He’s also concerned about the impact of potential cuts to the college’s overall operating budget, particularly given that the Legislative Budget Board’s recommendation includes cutting state funding to pay for insurance for community college employees. “We’ve already cut $30 million from our operating budget, and if the state doesn’t continue to pay for the insurance, that’s another $25-million bill,” Leslie said.

He also said that budget cuts at the state level will impact local taxpayers. The Alamo Colleges’ annual operating budget of roughly $280 million is supported, in part, by a property tax levy. “They are just passing these cuts on to the local taxpayers. There are a lot of things that, frankly, we have to pay for, and if the state doesn’t pay for it, that burden falls on the local taxpayers,” he said.
In addition to community colleges, early childhood education faces cuts that will leave as many as 109,000 children statewide out of the Pre-K Early Start Program, and another 83,000 children dumped from the Texas School Ready! Program, according to a budget primer distributed last week by the Texas Legislative Study Group.

Social services cuts are expected to hit nearly every part of Texas hard. Farias says they will particularly impact his district, which has a high population of people over the age of 65. The proposed reduction of $1.57 billion in payments to nursing facilities will be particularly tough on the elderly, and, Farias says, hit home on the very block where he lives. “I have a neighbor in her 80s, and I check on her every time I come back from Austin. The other day, she was telling me she’s looking at moving into an assisted living facility. I told her she had better hurry up, because if she waits, there isn’t going to be anything for her,” he said. “This is going to hit the elderly and underprivileged in my district worse than, I believe, any district in San Antonio.”

Art Garza, chief of staff for newly elected State Representative John Garza, R-San Antonio, said he and his staff are also concerned about the potential hit to the mentally disabled. “The mentally ill are among the most vulnerable in our society, and we’ve got to find a way to soften this blow, otherwise we risk some of these people ending up in the criminal justice system, where it will cost even more,” Garza said.

Local hospitals will no doubt suffer from the impact, as will their patients. The proposed budget cuts payments to long-term care facilities by 33 percent and payments to hospitals by 10 percent. 

How this all shakes out in terms of budget cuts is still up in the air. It is doubtful that the GOP-dominated House or Senate will vote to raid the $9 billion-plus Rainy Day Fund, although legislative leaders expect that the $27 billion shortfall figure could be modified downward by the Comptroller Susan Combs before the session ends.

Either way, Farias says the outcome won’t be positive. “They are putting on a show because they are talking about balancing the budget without raising taxes and without touching the Rainy Day Fund.” Farias says he questions the possibility that the shortfall numbers will be reduced, and by how much. “`Those within` the Republican leadership are the ones that say those numbers will change, and we’ve heard that before. We’ve heard this shortfall would be $11 billion, then one time we heard $18 billion, then $15, then $20 and finally that it would be closer to $25 billion. It came in at over $27 billion,” he said.

So, will more money be found, or will revenue projections be raised to help lessen the impact the cuts will have on Bexar County — and Texas families?

“It’s a shell game,” Farias said. “It is a pea in the shell and we’re trying to figure out where it is and only they know.”

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