Facing Budget Cuts, Texas Agency Chiefs Stay Calm

HHSC Commissioner Tom Suehs testifies before lawmakers.
HHSC Commissioner Tom Suehs testifies before lawmakers.

They’re surely facing the worst state budget cycle any of them have experienced. Yet in hours upon hours of testimony before lawmakers — flanked by the school children and people with disabilities who will be hit hardest by the proposed cuts to close the state's $15 billion to $27 billion shortfall — the commissioners of Texas’ social services and education agencies have appeared largely unruffled. 

It’s not because they are unconcerned. There are hints of conflicted emotions, and the occasional unscripted outburst — like when Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs insisted last week that reporters were understating the impact of the proposed cuts, just days after the governor who appointed him accused the "mainstream media" of creating a climate of unjustified fear.

The critics of the commissioners say it’s because they’re largely “good soldiers,” appointed by a Republican governor determined to meet the budget shortfall without new revenue and without depleting the state's Rainy Day Fund. If they’re don’t toe the line, these critics suggest, agency chiefs risk losing their jobs.

Former commissioners and veterans of the committee testimony circuit acknowledge there’s a degree of truth to this: It doesn’t serve to be overly descriptive and dejected. They say they never received orders to play down a crisis in their statements to the Legislature. But this time, the agency commissioners are not just being loyal to Gov. Rick Perry; they’re answering to voters who sent an overwhelming small-government, balanced-budget message in November.

“The agency heads are no doubt in a very difficult position,” said former Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses, who testified frequently before state committees in the late 1990s before moving on to run the Dallas Independent School District. He’s now an education consultant. “They want to be faithful and loyal to the executive branch — whoever’s responsible for their appointment. At the same time, I’m sure they have a lot of empathy, and realize there are real needs that won’t be met.”

 

The cool and collected demeanor of agency chiefs facing billions of dollars in cuts — between $9 billion and $10 billion in public school reductions, a 25 percent cut in the billions of dollars Texas spends on health care, hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid losses, and the possible closure of four community colleges — is driving some Democratic lawmakers mad with frustration. It's even raising eyebrows among some Republican members who would like to tap into the Rainy Day Fund. 

In hours of testimony last week before the Senate Finance Committee, Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein expressed tempered concern about the cuts facing the agency, including the elimination of up to 800 child protective services positions, and slashing provider rates up to 12 percent. When asked if the agency could handle these cuts, she answered: “We would do the best we could.” Later, she calmly compared the decisions she was making to turning her attention to a house that was on fire, as opposed to a house with faulty wiring that would likely burn in the future.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, exploded. “Do you ever come up here and tell us you can’t do what we’re asking you to do?” he thundered. “It’s deplorable that you describe a circumstance, but say ‘We’ll work through it, we’ll manage. …’ I’m waiting for the first agency director or commissioner … to give us that dilemma, and say, ‘We can’t do our mission with the resources you’re proposing.’”

He may be waiting a long time. Faced with hundreds of job losses, Department of State Health Services chief David Lakey told lawmakers, “We can reduce and manage in that number.” In Department of Aging and Disability Services Commissioner Chris Traylor’s testimony, he said the current budget won’t stop the state from meeting the terms of a federal settlement agreement over abusive conditions inside the state’s institutions for the disabled, but spoke haltingly when lawmakers asked him if he could care for the state’s neediest people without funding for a handful of “exceptional” items. “I don’t think it would be a step forward to the momentum we’ve had,” he offered, choosing each word carefully. 

When current Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott came before the legislative firing squad, he too made comparisons, describing the budgeting process as “asking a guy on an operating table if he wants his heart or his lungs back.” Still, he seemed far more optimistic, suggesting repeatedly that he could carry out his agency’s duties with the sweeping cuts that have been proposed. 

“I can make it work,” he said.

“Really?” Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, challenged, disbelievingly.

“I will figure out a way to make it work,” Scott replied.

 

Later, in the midst of Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes’ testimony, Whitmire reached another boiling point.

“Y’all almost make it sound like a badge of honor that you’re accepting the cuts,” he said. “…I’m not going to say you had glee, but you said — my interpretation is — you readily accept them, and let’s go forward.”

Paredes said no one is gleeful about making such deep cuts. “But we’ll manage,” he said. “…If we really are committed to high levels of cost-efficiency, we ought to be able to get by.”

Zaffirini, who’s been on the Senate’s budget writing committee for two decades, said this “be a good soldier” mentality is making it increasingly difficult to “get at the truth of the matter.”

“Someone, some power that be, has instructed that person to come in and be a good soldier,” Zaffirini said. “They’ve said, ‘Don’t whine, and don’t complain abut the cuts, and just say you’ll accept it.’”

Moses, the former TEA commissioner, said that from experience, it’s never that simple — and there are certainly never orders to hold back the facts. “They’re trying to bring as much balance to the hearings as they possibly can,” he said. “No agency head doesn’t want to function at a high level. I think they will courageously try to answer that challenge.”  

The messages to lawmakers may be getting clearer. Late last week, HHSC’s Suehs took a firmer tack with the House budget-writing committee, telling them reporters had latched onto a number that underrepresented the cuts the agency was facing — and that Medicaid rate cuts will likely lead the state’s hospitals to be downgraded by a bond-rating agency. 

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