First Major Action by Legislature Set for Thursday

Posted by Jon Weist, on Fri February 15 2013 at 10:30 PM

The first effort at making substantive headway in the Texas Legislature will come to the House floor Thursday in the form of a budget bill to cover payments to Medicaid providers for the last few months of the current state budget year.

In a way, House Bill 10 by Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts is a relic of the last legislative session, the one without any money but a whole lot of conservative social engineering. State leaders left town in June of 2011 without providing for a way to pay all the bills – they balanced the budget by not spending money they knew they were going to have to spend rather than consider adding revenue to close the budget gap.

The idea, at the time, was that early in the current session, they would pass a supplemental budget bill taking up to $5 billion from the Economic Stabilization Fund (the Rainy Day Fund, as it has become known) to pay doctors, hospitals and nursing homes for treating Medicaid patients in the March to August time frame. This is the same Rainy Day Fund the governor declared off limits in 2011 when the state cut $5.4 billion from public education funding.

Looking back, many now believe the revenue estimate was woefully mistaken, forcing education cuts that didn’t need to take place given the resurgence in state revenue collections that has occurred since then. However, given the legislative mood at the time, many welcomed the dire income forecast as justification for doing what they wanted to do anyway, which was cut government spending regardless of how low it already was or what it was for.

Because tax collections – particularly on energy and car sales – have boomed, the current budget has a surplus so large that it can cover the Medicaid shortfall (which, for other reasons, is less than was projected), perhaps fix some accounting gimmicks and maybe even restore a little money to the Foundation School Program, though Governor Rick Perry and a host of conservative legislators indicate they aren’t interested in rebuilding education funding.

The mechanism for the fix is a supplemental appropriations bill, this one carried by Pitts, a Republican from Waxahachie who is a senior member of Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team. The Appropriations Committee kicked the bill out last week in a unanimous vote, and on Valentine’s Day a rule governing debate on the bill was adopted by the full House that effectively cut off attempts by some Democrats to use the supplemental budget vote to attempt to add money to education funding.

The only remaining issue is if the bill gets enough votes Thursday. Most legislation is prohibited from being heard until the 60th day of the session – on reason legislative sessions seem so frenzied at the end – but emergencies declared by the governor and supplemental budget bills are exceptions. However, Perry did not declare this to be an emergency, so passage will require a four-fifths vote – 120 members – which means a majority of legislators from both parties need to vote yes.

Those voting “no” could come from two perspectives: Democrats who want to start talking about education increases now, and Republicans who, having already taken a stand against expanding Medicaid eligibility, want to signal their opposition to Medicaid spending for any reason.

For Democrats, the symbolic “no” vote would be just that, since leadership has basically set public ed spending aside as an issue until final appeals in the many school finance lawsuits against the state are considered by the Texas Supreme Court, a ruling that may not come until this summer or even next year. And, Democrats are the champions of the poor, who are the recipients of Medicaid services, so they very much vote against their core interests by voting no.

For Republicans who vote “no” it’s a little simpler, the vote being a way to show their most die-hard, conservative constituents that they’re against government and against the federal Affordable Care Act. That this vote has nothing to do with the affordable care act may not be a significant deterrent in the ongoing shouting match that has become public policy debate.

The full text of HB 10 is posted under “State Issues” on the Chamber’s public policy page or by clicking here.

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