Ben’s Blog 2019 (#3)
The month of March came and went with such rapidity that the halfway point for the 86th session passed with little notice. Legislators have, in general, worked collaboratively this session both within their own chambers and remarkably well between House and Senate. A recap of the month’s activities:
UTMB students and Galveston County go to Austin
On the first Tuesday, UTMB School of Medicine students swarmed the capitol to visit their hometown state representatives and senators. This opportunity is afforded them through an educational grant for health policy and advocacy from the SOM Alumni Board.
A couple of comfortable buses picked up the students at the Rose Garden on the Galveston Campus (I think the departure site is coincidentally symbolic of just how thorny some of these legislative issues can be). Breakfast aboard the bus got them prepared for a long day at the capitol. By 9:30 a.m., the buses unloaded sleepy students into the very cold (that day) and rarefied (always) air of the state capitol. They were met by the UTMB legislative affairs staff and I to begin the day of learning.
White coats lined the front steps of the capitol for a photo op with newly elected District 23 State Representative Mayes Middleton. Zack Nguyen and his classmates presented Rep. Middleton with a framed print of Renee Wiley’s “Old Red” watercolor painting to hang in his office. Rep. Middleton is a Texas history aficionado and took some time to show students around the capitol building, noting its history and symbolism of liberty, justice and protection of individual rights.
Students then moved into the gallery of the Texas House of Representatives, where they were recognized by Mr. Middleton and fourth-term representative Dr. Greg Bonnen, a UTMB graduate and neurosurgeon. The group then moved on the Texas Senate chamber, where Sen. Larry Taylor introduced the group again, along with Senators Charles Schwertner and Dawn Buckingham, who are also UTMB medical school and residency graduates.
Also accompanying the medical students were Dr. Bill Bailey, Dr. Jim Wren, Dr. Brian Masel and Dr. Debra Fuller. After a sandwich at the Texas Medical Association building, the students spent a couple of hours visiting legislators’ offices, discussing the importance of both graduate medical education and affordable tuition for medical students.
At 4 p.m. the group returned to the TMA auditorium, where they heard from Rep. Middleton and had a chance to ask him questions about the legislative process. In addition, all of the alumni guests addressed the students, pointing out the importance of advocacy for patients and physicians interests in the practice of medicine.
After a hearty meal of Texas BBQ, the group returned to UTMB, well-fed on food and politics, and much more comfortable in their ability to address the serious issues that create potential barriers to success for patients and physicians.
The following day, the Galveston County chambers of commerce also stormed the capitol, with County Judge Mark Henry, Commissioner Ken Clark and their colleagues kicking off the day by meeting with Governor Greg Abbott. As you might suspect, the Galveston County group followed the same path of presentations in the House and Senate as the UTMB students and spent the day visiting members from all over the state.
Flood protection, tourism growth, environmental protection and economic growth dominated their advocacy message. At the top of their list was funding for and growth of all of the county’s educational institutions, including UTMB, Texas A&M at Galveston and our community colleges. In the evening, a seafood feast was provided by the chambers of commerce, with an amazing turnout by legislators.
The Bills at Session’s Midpoint
During March, the Senate passed their version of a Supplemental Appropriations Requests (SAR) Bill, or SB 500. The appropriation included the following amounts from General Revenue (GR) and the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF, known to most as the Rainy Day Fund):
- $4.4 billion from GR for the Medicaid shortfall (underfunded from the prior session)
- $542 million from the ESF for Teacher Retirement System deposits
- $300 million from the ESF for state hospital improvements (mental health)
- $100 million from the ESF for hardening of schools (safety and security work)
- $100 million from the ESF for the governor’s disaster grant funding
- $643 million in GR for the Foundation School Program Adjustments
The Lieutenant Governor also listed his priority bills; in the top 14 were:
- SB1, the state budget by Sen. Jane Nelson
- SB2, property tax reform by Sen. Paul Bettencourt
- SB3, pay raises for teachers by Sen. Nelson
- SB4, school finance reform by Sen. Taylor
- SB5, increase homestead exemption by Sen. Bettencourt
- SB6, disaster response act by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst
- SB7, flood disaster plan matching funds by Sen. Brandon Creighton
- SB8, statewide flood plan by Sen. Charles Perry
- SB9, enhance election security by Sen. Bryan Hughes
- SB10, student targeted mental health, Sen. Nelson
- SB11, school safety by Sen. Taylor
- SB12, retired teachers’ security act by Sen. Joan Huffman
- SB13, ethics reform by Sen. Creighton
- SB14, expand rural broadband by Sen. Robert Nichols
Other major legislative actions making their way through the Senate include protecting local free markets, forgiving college loans for police, protecting religious liberties, protecting campus free speech, protecting Second Amendment rights, stopping human trafficking, raising the smoking age to 21, defunding of certain abortion providers, proposing the Texas born-alive infant protection act and alternative to abortion act, transferring higher education credits, honoring commitment to state parks, stopping government overreach, stopping frivolous government lawsuits, stopping taxpayer-funded lobbying, and ensuring bond transparency through taxpayer right-to-know efforts.
On the other side of the capitol, the House of Representatives approved a state budget for fiscal 2020/2021 that includes $115 billion in state funds. The House budget utilizes $2 billion from the Economic Stabilization (or Rainy Day) Fund, which currently holds over $11 billion in reserve. With the federal matching funds that will be drawn down through Medicaid and other programs, the total proposed budget by the House will be $250 billion.
What is the Status of UTMB’s Priorities?
- Hold Harmless Funds. As a reminder, in the last (85th) session, legislators provided $12 million in “hold harmless” funding to offset the effects of larger budget cuts. One of our priorities this session was to retain that $12 million in hold-harmless funding. We are happy to report that the funding was placed into the new base for UTMB’s next biennial budget.
- Hospital Formula. This is the fourth session in which UTMB has asked the legislature to treat UTMB’s “special item,” or mission-specific, formula funding for the hospital in the same manner that they treat both MD Anderson and UT Tyler. The Senate approved a mission-specific formula for research at UT Southwestern this past month, but failed to approve UTMB’s request for a hospital formula. Senator Larry Taylor did get a rider request for the hospital formula placed into Article XI, so it can still be considered at the time of budget conference.
- Regarding our request for restoration of previous reductions from the 85th session, there has been no action. To be fair, all systems requested restoration and none have received any hint that it would occur. Nevertheless, we will still push that agenda item.
- Tuition Revenue Bond. We submitted a request for a $157 million TRB to enable the construction of a multipurpose academic/clinical/research building on our League City Campus; the House Higher Education committee voted out its substitute, which includes $120 million for the project.
- Correctional Health Care. The story in this arena is less encouraging in that both House and Senate have put in only $160 million for Supplemental Appropriations Requests and $160 million to increase base funding for the 2020/2021 biennium. Both are inadequate if UTMB is to continue to participate in this service. The SAR needs to be at $218 million to cover shortfalls between funding and expenses in the current (2018/2019) biennium, and the base needs to be increased by another $318 million for UTMB and Texas Tech to be able to continue this highly successful and cost-effective program. UTMB and Tech provide the required constitutional level of care at a cost of $12-$13 per day per offender, whereas California and other states are spending $44 per day per offender or more. We will continue to work with our Texas Tech and Texas Department of Criminal Justice colleagues on this important issue.
As always, you can follow progress of the current legislative session at http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/