Texas Legislative Week in Review
Senators working on their version of the state budget are nearing a final proposal, but there is still plenty of work to do. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing Thursday to update the public on budget progress after Senators broke into ten workgroups, each dealing with a specific section of the budget. Committee Chairman Senator Tommy Williams of the Woodlands noted that the workgroups will have to make some cuts, as they are currently proposing to spend more than the filed proposal allowed.
One of the thornier issues facing budget writers is the health and human services budget, specifically, the rising cost of Medicaid. Medicaid costs have risen an average of 14 percent per year, and Williams told members that healthcare spending could soon consume the budgets for other critical services. “Health and human service needs aren’t being met because the Medicaid monster just consumes so much of our revenue,” he said. Williams directed the health and human services budget workgroup to preserve funding for mental health services, the Texas School for the Blind, and the School for the Deaf.
Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, who is heading up the healthcare workgroup and also chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, passed a bill out of her committee on Tuesday aimed at helping to control the rising cost of Medicaid by targeting waste, fraud and abuse. It is inexcusable to learn that the Office of Inspector General has identified more than $6 billion in fraud, waste and abuse from 2004 to 2011,” she said. “We simply cannot afford for this to continue.”
Her bill, SB 7, would create a division within the Health and Human Services Commission that would be charged with analyzing data and learning ways to identify and quickly respond to Medicaid fraud. It would bar providers who have broken the law in other states from operating in Texas, and charges the Office of Inspector General with investigating allegations of fraud. T h e Legislative Budget Board predicts that this bill, if it becomes law, will save about $14 million per year, but Nelson said she believes that estimate is too low. The bill was passed by the committee and will go to the full Senate for a vote.
The Senate Education Committee dealt with two major bills this week. The first of these, SB 3 by Committee Chair Senator Dan Patrick, would change the graduation standards for Texas high school students. Instead of the current three tiered graduation system, all students would work towards a fundamental diploma. They could earn endorsements by taking courses in certain fields, such as vocational training or advanced placement courses. According to its author, it is hoped the new system will offer students more options and better prepare them to either enter the workforce or attend college after graduation. That bill passed committee on Tuesday.
The second bill, SB 2, also by Chairman Patrick, would remove the cap for charter schools in Texas. Charter schools are currently capped at 215, and Patrick said more than 100,000 students are on waiting lists to get in. His bill would set up a commission charged with approving and overseeing charter school performance. Schools that don’t meet academic or economic standards three out of their first five years could be closed by the commission. Charter schools could also purchase or lease unused facilities from school districts at a fair market value. SB 2 remains pending before the Education committee.