Texas budget cut pain is far reaching

Last week, people  had a chance to tell the Texas Senate Finance Committee how budget cuts proposed by the Texas Legislature and Gov Perry will affect them and their loved ones, and it wasn’t pretty. Senators heard that nursing home cuts will mean death for some seniors; that more mentally ill Texans will end up on the streets or in jail; that youngsters with developmental disabilities won’t receive the help they need; and countless other stories that showed the depth and breadth of the impact that these cuts will have.

“Last week’s huge turn out and emotional testimony made it clear that the budget cuts will affect most of us,” said Derrick Osabase, political director for the Texas State Employees Union, CWA Local 6186. “Whether it’s the middle- class mother of two denied coverage for her children’s treatment or the elderly woman who was afraid of being kicked out of her nursing home, one thing for sure is that the poor are not the only people on state services. Lots of middle-class families filled the committee room last week asking legislators to take a balanced approach to balancing the budget.”

And state workers and retirees will also feel the impact. The proposed  budget presents two options for cutting state employees health care benefit. One option would raise the amount of money that employees and retirees pay for health care coverage. Employee and retiree premiums would increase by nearly $1200 a year; if dependents are covered, the yearly increase would be as much as $2,760. The cuts would amount to a substantial cut in monthly take home pay and would force many workers and retirees to drop health care coverage for dependents.

The second option would restructure the health care benefit as a high deductible health care plan that would require employees and retirees to pay $4,400 a year before the plan would cover 100 percent of costs. If dependents are covered, employees and retirees would have to pay as much as $11,900 a year before the plan would cover 100 percent of costs. Employees and retirees under 65 years old would be able to open a health savings account to help pay for their deductible and co-insurance cost.

“Either of these options would be disastrous for state employees,” Osobase said. “A cut to benefits without an increase in pay is a cut in pay.”

As the legislative session goes on, state leaders will no doubt try to drive a wedge between those who need state services and those who provide them by saying that the state can’t afford to provide all the services that Texans need without cutting benefits and pay for state workers.

But the fact is that even though Texas has a large state budget deficit now, it’s a wealthy state with plenty of resources to provide decent services and decent benefits for those who provide the services. Texas Comptroller Susan Combs reports that the Gross State Product (the total value of goods and services produced in the state) was more than $1.2 trillion in the third quarter of 2010.

And some of the state’s richest corporations are doing quite well. For example, Exxon Mobil reported earnings of $30.7 billion in 2010 and returned a total of $19 billion to shareholders. Halliburton reported consolidated income of $3 billion for 2010 up 57 percent over 2009.

The cuts proposed by the Legislature will most fall heavily on those least able to bear the burden, but the cuts will be felt by most of us, and their impact will be crippling. Local governments will either have to raise taxes or cut more services, classrooms will be too crowded, higher education will be out of reach for many working class students, and the economic impact caused by layoffs will devastate some communities.

The best way to avoid the pain these cuts will impose is to avoid the temptation to fight for a particular interest and instead make this a universal fight for quality state services. To do so will require a broad-based movement that advocates a balanced approach toward writing the budget, an approach that includes tapping a little private wealth to help the larger community avoid crippling cuts.

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