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Mon Jan 31 21:10:30 CST 2011
Disabled kids to lose benefits in draft budget
By SOMMER INGRAM - Jan 31, 2011 8:59 PM ET
By The Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The state will cut assistance to half the autistic children currently receiving help and a third of blind children from state programs
under the Texas Senate's current budget proposal, officials said Monday.
State senators on the finance committee heard from those responsible for carrying out proposed cuts for the first time on Monday morning. Legislative Budget
Board analyst Shaniqua Johnson told the committee that the number of blind children helped by the Department of Assistive Rehabilitative Services would
be cut from 3,600 to 2,491 per fiscal year. The number of autistic children who currently receive services would be reduced from 180 children now to 90
children under Senate Bill 1.
The early childhood intervention program, a statewide program serving families with disabled children from birth to age 3, served about 60,000 children
for the 2010 fiscal year, according to the interim commissioner of the department, Debra Wanser. She said the proposed Senate budget would cut this number
to about 48,000 children over the course of the year.
Wanser said her department can't stop serving the children currently in the program, but the funding restrictions imposed by the bill would force it to
possibly stop accepting new applicants.
The Senate's proposed budget would also cut community mental health services, reducing the number of patients from 124,000 to 109,000. Dr. David Lakey,
commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, said the state's investment in the mental health system has prevented patients from filling jails,
hospitals and emergency rooms.
The draft of the budget bill before the Senate also includes a 10 percent cut in reimbursements to Medicaid providers, a figure that some say could lead
doctors to leave the program.
Legislative Budget Board Director John O'Brien told lawmakers this was an economic decision most providers will have to weigh when deciding if they will
still participate in Medicaid. The base budget recommendations from the Legislative Budget Board do not cover the anticipated increases in numbers of clients
eligible for Medicaid coverage.
But O'Brien said the state will have to pay the costs of Medicaid, regardless of whether legislators fund it or not.
"If these people show up, they will be served — Medicaid is an entitlement program," O'Brien said. "The costs will be there whether you fund them or not."
The state's chief revenue estimator, John Heleman, identified a $10 billion structural deficit created by poor planning in past tax cuts. Heleman said the
legislature's decision to cut property taxes in 2005 and replace that revenue with a new business tax created a perpetual budget shortfall.
He said the property tax cuts cost more than lawmakers anticipated, and the new business tax does not bring in the $6 billion per year that was expected.
With the tax currently bringing in only $4 billion, Heleman said the gap is not closing, leaving a $10 billion hole in the budget.
Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said it's apparent that the levy, known as the margins tax, needs to be reviewed and revised.
"It looks like there's a structural deficit that will be prolonged if we don't do something about it now," Shapiro said. "So we've got to change the system
if it's not working well."
Heleman said the recovery in jobs and business revenues from the recession is expected to be slow, since the state's revenue stream took a substantial hit.
Texas is currently collecting revenues slightly below the level of what it did in fiscal year 2008.
"While we are recovering and certainly no doubt about that, we're recovering from a low level and we have a lot of room to make up," Heleman said.
Texas loses about $500 million per year in state sales taxes from Internet purchasing and potentially another $100 million is local sales taxes.
In order to maintain the current level of services, lawmakers will need to find $27 billion, or dramatically cut services in the new two-year budget.
The Senate's $158.7 billion proposed budget does not call for raising taxes and doesn't dip into the state's Rainy Day Fund. It would cut current spending
by more than 15 percent by dealing school systems huge funding cuts, slashing college financial aid, as well as Medicaid payments to doctors, hospitals
and nursing homes.
Public schools across the state are bracing for huge budget cuts and preparing to lay off employees and close campuses. Though the Senate budget proposal
allots more money to public education than the House of Representatives version, it still falls $9.3 billion short of money school systems need to keep
operating at current levels.
Copyright © 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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