In the first comprehensive glimpse of how the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic will affect key state services, an August state budget document obtained by the American-Statesman lays out how agencies proposed meeting 5% cuts demanded by the state’s Republican leadership in May.
Those cuts are the fallout of a plunge in tax revenues as businesses shuttered. Travel and entertainment spending plummeted, hitting hotel occupancy and alcoholic beverage taxes particularly hard. Oil and gas tax revenues took a nosedive in the wake of collapsing world demand and a Saudi Arabia-Russia production dispute.
Comptroller Glenn Hegar in July projected a budget shortfall of $4.58 billion for the fiscal year that ended Monday, with revenue falling further behind spending during the 2021 fiscal year.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Lake Jackson, in May asked state agencies to reduce their budgets by 5%, Nick Wagner/American-Statesman File
But the fate of the proposed cuts in the budget document remained a mystery, with no public pronouncement and top state officials not returning requests for comment. The state Legislative Budget Board, which put the compilation together, has declined to release the report, terming it a working document.
The 374-page document shows how widespread the cuts could be. The cost-cutting proposals include:
- $1.6 million from Health and Humans Services Commission regulatory programs, chiefly through hiring freezes. The agency warned that such cuts could “potentially delay investigations of abuse, neglect, and exploitation” and also impact “responses to open records requests, federal reporting, reduced technical support of program applications, training, criminal history checks of child care providers, processing of enforcement actions and other activities.”
- Fewer clients served by a state epilepsy program, children’s advocacy programs and the Court Appointed Special Advocates program. Cuts would also reduce the number of clients receiving family planning and health screenings.
- $165,000 from a Health and Human Services Commission program for mental health support through a family violence program
- $200,000 from the Texas Education Agency in grants to organizations that provide athletic programs for students with intellectual disabilities.
- $450,000 from a Texas attorney general’s office program that apprehends fugitives and investigates sexual predators, cybercrimes and crimes against children.
- $150,000 from an attorney general’s office Medicaid investigations program — specifically into criminal fraud by Medicaid providers, physical abuse and criminal neglect of patients in health care facilities receiving Medicaid, and misappropriation of patients’ private funds in facilities.
- $835,241 from a child support program contract for temporary employees in the office of the attorney general — but the “ability to collect child support will be negatively impacted.” Child support staff in Texas currently work more than 579 cases per employee, while the national average is 265. Reducing the contract for temporary employees would lead to a loss of $25.5 million in child support collections to families and cost $8.9 million in avoided social services such as Medicaid, the report said.
- $200,000 from the Higher Education Coordinating Board by defunding 21 advisers serving 22 high schools across Central Texas, El Paso, Houston, Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley. Nearly 10,000 seniors and up to 1,200 students with disabilities “will no longer receive assistance in financial aid and college application completions, scholarships, SAT/ACT registration, and college exploration activities,” the agency says in the report.
- $43 million out of a financial aid program run by the Higher Education Coordinating Board worth upward of $400 million. Based on an average grant of $5,000, 8,605 fewer people will receive an aid package, according to the proposal. In July, Gov. Greg Abbott announced ways that Texas would use more than $170 million in federal money to shore up financial aid programs and support higher education in Texas.
- $1.1 million from Texas A&M Corpus Christi to delay maintenance and repair projects that relate to damages sustained during Hurricane Harvey not covered under FEMA, and defer purchases of equipment for classrooms and teaching labs.
- $3 million from the University of Texas through the cancellation of scheduled merit raises.
- $183,000 from the AgriLife Extension Service of Texas A&M through reducing operations and travel of field technicians who provide assistance to landowners with feral hogs and coyote issues.
- $1.3 million from the Texas Arts Commission by delaying the construction of an arts center in Flower Mound, even as the agency reports that “we anticipate that the recovery period for arts organizations in the state will be much longer than other industries.”
Altogether, the proposals add up to a shade over $1 billion and involve the freezing or elimination of more than 4,000 staff positions.
Budget analysts say the cuts were not a surprise, given reports from the comptroller about the downturn on tax collections.
Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst with the liberal-minded Every Texan think tank, said the cuts set a diminished baseline when the Legislature reconvenes in January to determine budgets for the next biennium.
“This bakes cuts into the budget for the next two years,” she said.
State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said the Legislature should be included in the budget-cutting process.
“Many of us remain concerned that some may try to use federal aid, meant to supplement state funding for things like public education, to supplant the state’s obligations and responsibilities,” he said.
Under state law, however, the Legislature passes a budget, but it does not have to be consulted if an agency spends less than its allotment.
By: Asher Price
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