Travis County (Austin) Commissioners Court on Tuesday passed a resolution urging Texas state lawmakers to take a balanced approach toward closing the state’s $23 billion budget gap instead of relying sole on cuts to services. Among other things, the resolution calls for legislators to use the state’s $9 billion reserve fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, to help make up the shortfall and avoid cuts to public services that will harm many county residents.
“A coalition of citizens’ groups and employees’ groups has asked (the Commissioners Court) to take a stand in favor of fully investing in the State of Texas,” said Commissioner Margaret Gomez when explaining why she was supporting the resolution. Then she added, “There’s a lot of opposition (in the Legislature) to using the Rainy Day Fund, but if it is not raining now, when is it going to be raining.”
A group of Texas State Employee Union members met last week with members of the Commissioners Court sharing information about the impact that the budget cuts will have on the local economy and asking the commissioners and County Judge Sam Biscoe to pass a resolution supporting a balanced approach to balancing the state budget.
The state Senate and House have both passed separate budgets. The House version relies solely on cuts to services to make up the $23 billion shortfall. If the House version of the budget passed, Travis County would lose
- $122 million in Medicaid payments affecting both health care providers and the 100,000 county residents on Medicaid;
- $190 million in education funding; and
- $122 million in public safety funding.
The House budget would also eliminate 16,000 public and private sector jobs in Travis County.
The Senate’s budget relies on fewer budget cuts, but the impact would still be severe. The Senate had originally planned to use some of the Rainy Day Fund to help balance the budget, but anti-public sector, special interests groups lobbied successfully to strip Rainy Day money out of the budget.
“Our members have been trying to push back against the special interests that want to cut public services,” said Mimi Garcia, outreach director for the Texas State Employees Union. “We hope that the Travis County resolution that resulted from our member visits will be the first of many other county resolutions that will demonstrate local opposition to a cuts only strategy for balancing the budget. We want to thank County Judge Sam Biscoe for his leadership in getting this resolution passed.”
Garcia said that union members will be taking copies of the resolution to lawmakers on Wednesday and urged members to keep making telephone calls to legislators telling them to save state services by using the Rainy Day Fund, maximizing federal funding, and adopting a more equitable and realistic tax structure to balance the budget.
During discussion of the resolution, Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt called the state’s budget shortfall. “a manufactured crisis.” “Texas is a wealthy state,” Eckhardt said. “There’s money to fund the essential public services that are being cut. Unfortunately, the Legislature has not generated the necessary revenue to govern. The Legislature needs to get their act in order and be fiscally responsible.”
The current budget crisis is the result of two things. First, the banking crisis of 2008 has left many people jobless, which in turn has caused sales tax receipts, the state’s major source of revenue, to decline. Second, in 2006 the Legislature and Governor cut property taxes that supported education and replaced them with a new business tax that everyone agreed would not generate sufficient revenue to replace lost property tax revenue.
As the Legislature heads into its final weeks, a conference committee will negotiate the final version of the budget. Texans who oppose a cuts only approach to the budget crisis have been mobilizing the grassroots to urge lawmakers to adopt a balanced approach. Public education supporters have run ads on TV. TSEU and other public sector unions have been mobilizing members to call lawmakers.
“We must demand a better budget,” Garcia said. “TSEU has always been a voice for those who use public services and those who provide them. Cutting services, firing public sector workers, and reducing their pay and benefits will make a bad situation worse. We can’t let our voice go silent now, but whatever happens with this budget, TSEU will continue to fight for more and better public services and fair treatment for workers providing those services.”