140 Days and 140 Nights

Jul 22, 2015, 08:48 AM by Melissa Harman

Torrential rainfall wasn’t the only downpour in Austin this spring. The political analysts are all trying to enumerate the positives in this 84th Legislative Session. It was a watershed session for social issues, to be sure. And although there will be much talk about the expansive tax cuts passed out of the session and the really, really conservative FY16-17 budget ($209.432 billion compared to the total of $190.9 billion for FY14-15)—all of that comes at a huge cost to what many would have liked to have seen added to public education, community colleges, higher education and health care. There was no adjustment in Medicaid rates, so hospitals and physicians did not receive a boost in funding. So where did all the money go?

  • Almost $20 billion remains in the state treasury in case it is needed in the future.
  • A small amount of money went toward “tax relief,” which translates into a larger deduction in homestead exemptions for homeowners. People who don’t own a home will see no tax relief.
  • A total of $23.1 billion in funds from various programs went to the Texas Department of Transportation for the state’s highway network. Some would say that amount is still less than what’s needed to expand highways, get started on new construction, maintain existing roads, and acquire right of ways for new improvements.

In truth, the budget could probably have been wrapped up much earlier than the end of May, because there were no substantial changes from the one first released in April. Most of the time has been spent debating a myriad of social issues, especially in the waning days of the session. Those issues included everything from bills related to banning same-sex marriage to those tightening abortion restrictions. The most pressing issue for a while in the Legislature seemed to center on expanding the right to carry guns on college campuses in addition to the open carry of guns. Before the session was over, there was still hope among some members to pass a bill that guaranteed “constitutional carry”—meaning that one can carry a weapon without licensure or prior screening.

Passions about issues ran high throughout the session, and members seemed to become more stressed as the session wore on, probably even more so after the American Phoenix Foundation announced that it had accumulated over 800 hours of secretly filmed video and audiotapes of members’ private conversations and life in general. Then came long discussions about to what extent the public has a “right to know” about the private lives of elected officials. Many members approached the invasion of privacy without concern, noting that, “it all comes with the turf” and “if you aren’t doing anything that you would not want to read on the front page of the paper, then don’t worry about it.” Others became angrier over the questions and photographs and responded by likening the audio-video surveillance to stalking.

Tensions also flared even among members of the same party. The old admonition of “speak no evil about a fellow party member” seemed to evaporate as procedural gimmicks and tricks were used to kill fellow members’ bills. There was lots of gamesmanship in both parties. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, who had worked all session to produce a laudable funding plan for Texas’ public schools, sadly pulled down his landmark bill rather than clog up the House calendar after ranking Senate members made it clear that they would not take up the legislation even if the House passed it. Rep. Aycock announced his retirement from the House just days after the session’s end joining 12 other legislators who have also already resigned their posts.

As deadlines approached and members raced the clock to get bills heard before midnight, both parties seemed to zero in on a few specific bills, especially those related to guns and social issues. Frankly, the Democrats did not want to see them pass, and many Republicans did not want to have to vote on them and leave a track record for later scrutiny. So when the “chubbing” (slowing down) of legislation started with the proverbial inane questions and points of order being raised, it was almost a relief to many Republicans who were just as happy to not have to vote on some of the topics that lay before them.

Amid all of that background of intrigue and rhetoric, how did Texas’ institutions of higher education, UT System and UTMB, in particular, fare in this most recent exercise in democracy?

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would have to award achievement of UTMB’s outlined legislative goals at least a 9. And I would also applaud the executive leadership of the House, the Senate and the Governor’s Office for the excellent job they did of keeping the agenda focused and working diligently to resolve problems. That statement is measured with the numbers:

  • The Texas Senate voted 30 to 1 in favor of the budget
  • The Texas House voted 115 to 33 for the budget
  • The Comptroller certified the budget
  • The Governor signed the budget

So let’s look at UTMB’s objectives and our end results:

  • Increase in formula funding (the money designated for the education of each student enrolled)Formula funding was increased, with UTMB receiving an additional $10 million. UTMB has seen nearly a 40 percent increase in enrollment over the past 6 years, so this is a welcomed increase in funding. Nevertheless, the formula funding amount is still markedly less than that which was allocated in 2001.
  • Maintain current level of funding for UTMB Hospitals and Clinics—UTMB retained its $10 million addition from the 83rd Legislature. We were happy to maintain that amount, but would welcome the Legislature’s consideration of our request for mission-based funding for our health system, like that received by MD Anderson and UT Health Northeast in Tyler.
  • Exceptional Item funding—Although UTMB had requested funding for programs at the Galveston National Lab, research in vaccine development and research in regenerative medicine, the Legislature awarded UTMB $8.2 million to construct the state’s first (and only) BSL-4 Treatment Facility. Other funding from state sources will increase that overall amount to almost $14 million.
  • Funding for the construction of an Interprofessional Education Building—The Legislature was most generous to all higher education facilities in granting requested funding for one such building project at each institution. UTMB was awarded $67.8 million (the full amount requested) for the construction of a new Interprofessional Education Building. Total cost for the building will be about $90 million; the remaining funds for construction will come from philanthropic resources. The building will be sited on the west end of UTMB’s Galveston campus.
  • Correctional Health Care Operations—$84 million was allocated to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for CMC operations as the Legislature recognized the current low cost provided by UTMB and Texas Tech ($9.40 per member per day) as well as the inflationary drivers such as offender aging, pharmacy costs and increases in costly chronic conditions among offenders.
  • Correctional Health Salary Adjustments—The Legislature allocated $60 million for CMC employee salary increases, marking the first adjustment for those employees in 4 years.
  • Correctional Health Supplemental Appropriation—The Legislature awarded TDCJ an additional $42 million to complete payments due to UTMB for the prior year’s services.
  • Graduate Medical Education funding—$60 million in new funding was added to the state’s GME programs. UTMB will receive funding increases based upon its addition of new residency slots and/or programs.

Other issues impacting UTMB and other institutions of higher education also passed out of Austin this session. Among them:

  1. The State Budget (HB 1) grew by only 3 percent over the current budget when adjusted for tax relief. It is “balanced” and left almost $20 billion in reserves.
  2. Supplemental Appropriations (HB 2) provides money to cover items in the prior two-year budget timeline that were under-funded. $768 million was placed into TRS-Care (the state’s teacher retirement health plan), and $800M was added to cover border security operations.
  3. General Revenue Dedicated Account Reform (HB 7) reduces the state’s reliance on GR dedicated funds for budget certification, increases budget transparency and ensures that fees are spent on intended purposes. In short, it does away with a host of “slush funds” and accounts with unexpended balances that have cluttered the accounting systems for years. Rep. Sarah Davis led this move to improve accountability and transparency.
  4. Open Carry, which was passed by both Houses and signed by the Governor, permits Texans with gun permits to carry their weapons openly in a holster.
  5. Campus Carry passed in spite of objections from UT System’s new Chancellor, Admiral Bill McRaven, and the objection of multiple university presidents, faculty and students. The bill calls for each university president to study the issue and develop a plan that accommodates students’ and employees’ right to carry; however, the plan may exclude certain areas of the campus and/or certain events. For instance, the Galveston National Lab is already excluded. UTMB will work under UT System guidance in developing the plan for its campuses.
  6. Trauma funding accounts with over $150 million in reserves will be paid to the state’s network of regional trauma centers in a move by Rep. Sarah Davis to improve state budget transparency by eliminating reserves from multiple state accounts. UTMB will benefit from these funds.
  7. Medicaid rates for physicians and hospitals were NOT adjusted during the session; therefore, inflationary costs in health care will have to be absorbed by providers of Medicaid services. Predictions are that more and more physicians will drop out of the already depleted ranks of those accepting Medicaid payments.
  8. Early Childhood Education did benefit through HB 4, signed by the Governor in late May 2015, which implements high-quality education standards for the Texas Pre-K programs. The Governor also signed SB 934, which provides training academies for public school teachers and enhances mathematics instruction and reading excellence programs in kindergarten.
  9. On May 31, 2015, the Governor also signed SB 632, which implements his higher education research emergency item by eliminating the Emerging Technology Fund and creating the Governor’s University Research Initiative. The fund will permit Texas universities to recruit prestigious, nationally recognized researchers to their faculty.
  10. Two bills provide the promised tax relief package: HB 1 increased the homestead exemption for school district property taxes from $15,000 to $25,000. HB 32 reduced the franchise tax on Texas businesses by 25 percent.
  11. State Contracting Reform (SB 20) strengthens contracting oversight across state government. After the revelation of contracting irregularities in the Health and Human Services Commission this year, the Legislature demanded that a better process be put in place for all state agencies.
  12. Health and Human Services Commission Sunset Review (SB 200) reorganized the five agencies related to health and human services by consolidating several into the overall Health and Human Services Commission umbrella and re-defining the role of the Department of State Health Services (SB 202).
  13. Public Education (HB 2804) redesigned the accountability system for evaluating school districts with the use of a straightforward “A” to “F” rating system.
  14. Mental Health funding received an increase of $150.7 million (not including Medicaid) for an overall designated $3.6 billion in all funds for behavioral health and substance abuse initiatives.
  15. Higher Education overall received a $391.5 million increase in funding for a total of $7.2 billion in general revenue funding and $1.3 in General Revenue Dedicated Funding for enrollment growth and formula increases. Community colleges were not included and therefore did not receive any increases in core operational funding.
  16. Tuition Revenue Bonds were approved for the first time since 2006 for the construction of new facilities on university campuses around the state.

Even as we reflect on the success of the 84th Legislative Session, we’re thinking ahead to January 2017 and the beginning of the 85th Legislature. During the coming “interim” year, we’ll continue to educate elected officials about UTMB and its mission and we’ll begin the important work of setting priorities for the next session.