As the new session of the Texas Legislature convened on January 8 inside the State Capitol in Austin, leading lawmakers and state officials said that Texas should refrain from restoring budget cuts that left state services in tatters two years ago. Others favor even steeper cuts.
Outside of the Capitol, members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 (TSEU) gathered in a steady rain at their Defending the Public Good rally to demand that the cuts be restored and services expanded.
“Whether it’s public safety, public education, public health, health and human services or a host of other services, public services are a public good that affect the quality of life for all of us,” said Seth Hutchinson, TSEU organizing coordinator. “We should be talking about how to improve and expand them, not about maintaining them at their current inadequate level much less cutting them.”
State employees were joined at their rally by members of the Workers Defense Project, which helps low-wage, mainly immigrant workers organize for better pay and safer working conditions, Education Austin, the local teachers’ union, IBEW, the Texas AFL-CIO, and the Texas Fair Trade Coalition.
Inside the Capitol, other TSEU members gathered at the rotunda, then fanned out to give legislators a packet containing TSEU’s legislative agenda. The agenda’s priority is funding state agencies at levels that allow state employees to provide quality services. The agenda includes a fair pay raise for state and university employees and full funding for employee health care and pension benefits.
The agenda also contains proposals for improving services such as
- Restore federal funding for the Women’s Health Program, (WHP may lose federal funding because lawmakers stopped funding Planned Parenthood clinics, the largest provider WHP services);
- Increase funding for and stop privatization at state universities;
- Improve caseload levels for parole officers and staffing levels at the Juvenile Justice Department;
- Stop the privatization of state assisted living centers and state hospitals;
- Restore funding for client services at the Department of Family and Protective Services; and
- Stop the closure of health and human service offices especially in rural areas.
“Two years ago, Texas cut funding for state services by $15 billion,” said Derrick Osobase, TSEU political director. “It now has the resources to restore the cuts and expand services.” The comptroller estimates that total state revenue for the next two years will be $202.8 billion, 17 percent more than during the last two years. The picture isn’t quite as rosy as it appears because there are structural problems with the state’s revenue system and the Texas population is growing rapidly, but “the legislature could at least make a sizeable down payment that could go a long way toward restoring and improving services,” Osobase said.
There is also $11.8 billion in the state’s Rainy Fund, some of which could be tapped to upgrade services.
Texas spends much less on services than other states. It ranks 47th among all states in spending per resident. Texas is especially stingy when it comes to providing services to its children. For example, five out of 1,000 of its children receive abuse and neglect prevention services. The national average, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, is 44 out of 1,000.
Two years ago, Texas slashed its public education budget by $5.4 billion, eliminating thousands of teaching and other direct education services positions. Two days ago, the Texas Education Agency announced that state education funding is about $1 billion short of what is needed for school districts to meet expenses for this school year.
Children aren’t the only ones that the state scrimped on two years ago. Lawmakers cut $58 million from the budget for supporting 60,000 Medicaid-dependent elderly and disabled people in nursing homes.
In addition to restoring and expanding these and other vital services, TSEU wants to improve them. Doing so will require attracting and maintaining a qualified and experienced workforce, but turnover at state agencies is a major obstacle.
The annual turnover rate for classified state employees in 2012 was 17.3 percent, up from 16.8 percent in 2011 and 14.6 percent in 2010. In some high stress positions, the rate is higher: For example, 35.9 percent for Juvenile Corrections Officers, 22.2 percent for nurses, and 25 percent for Child Protective Services Specialists.
One of the main reasons for high turnover is low pay. Two years ago, the Center for State & Local Government Excellence reported that Texas state employee pay on average was 17 percent lower than pay for comparable work in the private sector.
“State employees have gone four years without a pay raise, so it’s time for one,” Osobase said. “A fair raise and full funding for health care and pension benefits would go a long way toward lowering the turnover rate and improving services.”
Osobase also noted that state retirees haven’t received a pension increase since 2001 and that it’s time for the legislature to fully fund the pension plan so that pensions can be raised.