House Committee Assignments, except two, don’t help Arlington much

Posted by Jon Weist, on Sat February 09 2013 at 12:58 AM

Committees in both houses of the Texas Legislature slowly started moving last week, with House members receiving their appointments on the last day of January and senators coming back to town after a long weekend.

For the most part, those House committee assignments didn’t elevate Arlington representation in areas that fall into place with the Chamber’s priorities. The exception to that is Representative Diane Patrick’s promotion to vice-chair of the House Higher Education Committee – a critical position given the city and chamber’s emphasis on the growth and sustainability of UT Arlington. A complete list of House Committee assignments is posted on the Chamber’s web site at http://arlingtontx.com/images/uploads/House_Committees_83rd_Legislature.pdf.

Patrick also retained her position on the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee and that committee’s sub-committee related to Article III, which is the chapter of the budget that addresses public and higher education.

Appropriations has been meeting since the day after committee assignments were handed out, and a result of that fast-paced schedule is a public hearing this morning at 7:30 a.m. on a supplemental appropriations bill to fix the current two-year state budget –expiring in August – by filling the hole budget writers left for the last months of the Medicaid program. The state’s vastly improved revenue picture allows legislators to make the appropriation out of existing cash, something that didn’t exist when they passed a budget in June 2011 with a Medicaid shortfall of more than $5 billion.

House Bill 10 by Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts adds $4.1 billion to Medicaid, a lower amount than was anticipated when legislators left Austin in 2011. The reduction in additional cost – yes, it’s still a big number – has been explained by cost controls previously put in place, by an improving economy that has made some families ineligible for the program by virtue of their increased income and by a substantial number of eligible Texans who just don’t sign up for the program.

The improvement in the Medicaid roles – fewer recipients – could take some explaining for the chorus of conservative legislators who ferociously resist accepting the $100 billion in Medicaid expansion dollars that the federal Affordable Care Act offers over the next 10 years, with a cost split of 90 percent federal and 10 percent settling in after that.

If legislators believe their own rhetoric about how never raising taxes and being stingy on spending will elevate the state’s economy, then they should believe that economic expansion applies to everyone, including those who they think will swamp the Medicaid rolls and “bankrupt” the state. Following that logic—a rising tide lifts all boats—fewer people with incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level will exist in the state. That income level, by the way, is currently $26,000 for a family of three.

If that’s true, then this deluge of Medicaid claims that will overtake all other spending will never materialize. Either that or it’s a cynical argument that’s more about playing to anti-government political sentiment than concern for the state’s budget or the 25 percent of Texans without health insurance. As many have said, if it weren’t for the politics this wouldn’t even be a discussion.

But politics do exist, and even the growing number of organizations pushing legislators to re-think their reflexive opposition to federal initiatives may not be enough to counter the we-hate-the-federal-government sentiment of many conservative legislators.

On the other big-ticket items, legislative leaders seem inclined to tread water on public education funding now that the state has, again, lost the first round of the school finance lawsuit in an Austin State District Court. While some Democrats are pushing to address the issue now, leadership is shrugging and contemplating a special session some time next year, after the decision makes it way through the appeals courts. House Speaker Joe Straus has suggested reserving money to pay for the anticipated order to put more money in the system—a position that also pushes back on Governor Rick Perry’s desire to fund a tax cut—and in a less specific way Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has suggested the same thing.

There seems to be general agreement that a one-time appropriation from the Economic Stabilization Fund can find two-thirds of House and Senate members to support a fund for water development projects around the state, a notion all three leaders have commented favorably on for several weeks. The idea of a $1 billion or $2 billion fund to subsidize local water projects, or provide low-interest loans to local jurisdictions, comes because there is enough money to fix the aforementioned Medicaid hole without tapping the Rainy Day fund, and because the fund may reach its constitutional maximum in the upcoming biennium or the one after that if isn’t spent down a little bit.

Solutions to the state’s transportation funding issues – many have been suggested, for years now – haven’t yet found the same consensus.

And, in what will no doubt be a confusing, complex chase right down the final day of the session, a multitude of legislation is showing up to change testing in public schools, to hold schools accountable in a different way and to improve education outcomes. Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick begins hearings on his ideas Tuesday, and House Public Ed Chair Jimmy Don Aycock has filed his own legislation, calling it a “place to start” the discussion.

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