In The News
Dallas Morning News, September 15, 2020
Texas proposes fewer budget cuts to women’s programs but would freeze hiring eligibility workers
Dallas Morning News, September 15, 2020,
by Robert T. Garrett
AUSTIN — The state’s mega agency for health care and social services is rescinding proposed cuts to women’s health, family planning and domestic violence programs, it announced Tuesday.
But the Health and Human Services Commission also said it’ll commence a hiring freeze for eligibility workers who screen needy Texans applying for safety-net programs, if elected leaders ratify its latest proposal.
What “has remained unchanged” since June is that the commission will meet its so-called 5% spending cut target with nearly $133 million less in expenditures of state tax dollars in the budget cycle that ends late next summer, spokeswoman Christine Mann said in a written statement.
In May, preparing for a tough budget session next year because of an economic downturn caused by the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dennis Bonnen asked agencies to offer what they described as 5% spending cuts.
After the “Big 3” Republican leaders exempted a host of major programs and “sacred cow” agencies from any reductions, though, only 17% of the state’s discretionary spending was on the chopping block, budget experts said.
By June, department heads offered slightly more than $1 billion of spending reductions — only a small slice of the $124 billion of general-purpose revenue expenditures contained in the current two-year budget.
The cuts at the commission, though not yet final, are likely to make it more difficult, amid a pandemic-driven recession, for newly jobless and uninsured Texans to receive help.
Kami Geoffray, chief executive of the women’s health group Every Body Texas, said she was relieved to learn Tuesday that the commission has walked back a proposed $3.7 million cut to providers of family planning services and care given to low-income women by the Healthy Texas Women program.
The move was part of an easing of more than $15 million in proposed reductions to “client services” — for women’s health and family violence programs; respite services in the Early Childhood Intervention program for infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays; and specialty programs for Texans who suffer from hemophilia and injuries to the spinal cord and brain.
“It’s really critical that, at bare minimum, we maintain the funding if not increase it” for needy Texans, Geoffray said.
“We understand that the state is certainly going to be experiencing revenue challenges. But there are also revenue solutions to ensure that safety-net services for Texans are fully funded,” she said, referring to a push by advocates for low-income Texans to have the Legislature consider closing billions of dollars in exclusions and exemptions from the sales tax and other taxes.
‘Step in the right direction’
Stephanie Rubin, who heads the advocacy group Texans Care for Children, also applauded the pullback of some cuts as a “step in the right direction” but noted the remaining proposals would hammer families already reeling from a “jobs crisis” and pandemic.
“In particular, we’re concerned about proposed cuts that would create delays for kids who need to sign up for Medicaid insurance so they can see a doctor,” Rubin said.
Mann, the commission spokeswoman, explained a major change from the commission’s June proposal: Instead of lopping off some 742 eligibility-determination positions — the workers who see if an applicant qualifies for food stamps, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program — the state would continue to pare more than $17 million of general-revenue spending in that screening program. But it would do it through attrition.
“The reductions will be achieved through salary savings from delayed filling of vacant positions,” she said. “However, we will not be reducing active positions and will continue to ensure compliance with federal requirements for completing eligibility determinations.”
The discussions remain a work in progress. “We are at the starting point of this process and no decisions are final," Mann said.
Liberal budget analyst Eva DeLuna Castro at the research and advocacy group Every Texan, though, said the authorized eligibility workforce in the budget year just ended already shrank to 8,085, from 8,648 in fiscal 2019.
DeLuna Castro said cuts to the eligibility process are effectively a cut in direct services. Tuesday’s document from the commission mentions how Texas would risk busting federal time frames for making decisions, which can lead to monetary penalties against the state.
“I don’t mean to beat up on agencies,” she said. “They’re doing what the leadership told them to do. It’s up to the Big 3 to decide it’s not worth it to make $132 million in cuts [to the commission] when there’s $8.5 billion" in the state’s rainy day fund.
But acting as if shrinking the eligibility workforce won’t cause delays for those in need is silly, she said.
“Not replacing people who leave has the same effect on client services,” DeLuna Castro said.
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