Texas Budget Cuts Trickle Down to Local Governments

Gov. Rick Perry mentioned the issue in his State of the State speech last week as he addressed the cuts needed to keep the Texas economy strong. "While we're at it," Perry said, "let's be sure we're not burdening local authorities with unfunded mandates, because they are facing their own budget challenges as well."

Unfunded mandates, as they're called, come in two forms: when the state passes a law forcing local governments to do or provide something without sending any money along to help, or when the state stops funding a service that local governments still must provide.

One lawmaker has even a proposed constitutional amendment blocking lawmakers from passing any unfunded mandates. But with billions of dollars set to be slashed from the state budget in the coming months, cities, counties and other local governmental bodies worry the mandates will come anyway.

Paul Sugg, with the Texas Association of Counties, said that if the state makes cuts to its prison system, county-run jails would feel the pinch. "As they lose beds, as they have to cut back on beds, that means their prisoners, people that are already sentenced, paper-ready inmates sit in our jails waiting for a state jail to open up," he said. "And that does add to our burden."

The association's Elna Christopher said the cuts could threaten law enforcement training grants, which help counties and cities pay to certify their police and sheriff's deputies.

"Without the grants," Christopher said, "the local government entities — whether they're counties or cities — will have to pay to send their law enforcement officers somewhere in order to get certified, which will cost the local taxpayers."

The costs keep coming. Take local health care districts, like Central Health, which provides health care for eligible Travis County residents. Patricia Young Brown, president of Central Health, said proposed cuts to the Medicaid reimbursement rates will most cause doctors to drop some of their Medicaid patients, some of whom will seek out local health care districts, Young said.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

Central Health runs its centers, in part, through property taxes. And unlike private clinics, the district can't turn away patients based on insurance. Once the clinics run out of appointments or hours in the day, that's it.

"They're already stretched," Young said. "I mean, they are taking new patients, but they not taking every new patient that needs services in the community. I guess those people just have to stop being sick."

On that note, how about a little good news: Texas cities won't lose much money from the state. Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said that's because cities don't get much money from the state to begin with.

The money cities do receive — to enforce traffic laws and to pay for local parks and the like — is being cut, like every other part of the budget. Sandlin said that's not a worst-case scenario for cities. Rather, cities fear the state will take additional revenue from the cities to help balance the state budget.

"Under current law … let's say you get a traffic ticket in Austin, the first $82 of that goes straight to state government," Sandlin said. "The Legislative Budget Board has recommended raising that from $82 to $97, [which] goes straight into state coffers."

There's also a recommendation to increase the state's "fee" for collecting local sales taxes. Right now the state takes 2 percent of all that's collected.  Sandlin says there's talk of raising that to 10 percent.

And here's one final point of contention between the state and local governments. County governments collect just about every tax or fee levied by the state, even though most of the money doesn't stay local. Christopher said that means county workers will have to face the public about any tax or fee increase.

"The citizens paying that fee … they don't know it's the state," Christopher said. "They're going to look at the local official and say, what the heck are you doing?"

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