On one of the coldest days of the new year, a group of people of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths stood shivering outside the Capitol, praying for lawmakers to have empathy for the neediest of Texans as they decide how to fill a shortfall in the state budget estimated at between $15 billion and $27 billion.
It was inaugural day of the 82nd legislative session, and new and returning lawmakers were streaming into the pink granite building to begin their work.
“Vote as if you had nowhere to escape from this cold,” Steven Folberg, rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, implored legislators in his prayer. “Vote as if you are hungry and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Vote as if you felt vulnerable and unprotected.”
Like many other Texas groups, faith organizations that lobby lawmakers are facing a brutal budgetary session. Texas Impact, a statewide interfaith organization that includes Congregation Beth Israel, is one of several faith-based groups working to help spare some of the state’s most vulnerable — the poor, the disabled, the elderly and children — from the brunt of the deep cuts lawmakers are contemplating. While the list of social issues each of the groups will take on this year may differ, they agree that the consequences of the budget crisis will affect them all. And it’s not only a moral issue for the religious groups; it concerns their own bottom lines, too. Because when the government doesn’t provide for the needy, the needy look to the church and other faith-based organizations.
“The budget shortfall is not made up,” Bee Moorhead, director of Texas Impact, told her members who gathered at Central Presbyterian's Fellowship Hall later in the afternoon after appearing at the Capitol for the Legislature’s opening day. “That is not political rhetoric. If we turn our pockets inside out, we really don’t have it.”
Both the House and Senate have released their first versions of the budget, and while the cuts to education, environmental agencies, and health and human services are severe, Moorhead said she believes it is at least an honest attempt to grapple with an extremely difficult reality. What the budget proposals show, she said, is that “with less money many [state] programs will do less of the things they are set up to do.” Still, she recognizes that these budget proposals are only a starting point. There are still many months to go before the end of the session.
Faith groups are among a variety of advocates who have joined together to ask lawmakers to look not just to drastic cuts to balance the budget. They want legislators to consider using the Rainy Day Fund, to eliminate tax loopholes and perhaps even raise some new fees and taxes.
“We want to balance the budget, but at the same time, we don’t want to throw people out of the nursing home,” said Suzii Paynter, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission.
Paynter said she hopes legislators would look to sources of revenue like the Rainy Day Fund and increasing the alcohol excise tax to balance the budget.
But there is one revenue-generating option nearly all the faith groups eschew: gambling. “We are very clear in saying we oppose the expansion of gambling in order to solve the budget deficit,” said Jennifer Allmon, associate director of the Texas Catholic Conference.
Clay Boatright, president of the Arc of Texas, a nonprofit organization that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said he’s grateful for the support of faith groups that lobby against budget cuts to state health services. But he said he also hopes those groups will continue their support after the cuts set in, because few expect that any area of the state’s budget will go unscathed.
Allmon, of the Texas Catholic Conference, said that faith organizations like the Catholic church are already playing a major role in providing basic needs and services. “Anytime the state makes cuts, the lines in our food pantries double and triple, and it becomes harder and harder for us to provide those without assistance,” Allmon said. “So we believe in the Catholic teaching that there is a role for government. There is a role for the common good and for the government providing for the common good.”
But not everyone sees the looming cuts as a bad thing. Pat Carlson of the Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative, pro-family, pro-life organization, is looking forward to it. “Government does not improve our lives,” said Carlson, one of two volunteer lobbyists for the forum. She said she would support cost-cutting measures such as the idea floated last year of opting out of Medicaid. And if that’s not possible, she said the program ought to be at least trimmed. “You can cut what the benefits are without cutting medical service,” Carlson said. “I’m not saying cut the program completely because there is a need there for some people, but many times those programs have gotten abused.”
Faith group leaders will be a constant presence at the Capitol this year to remind lawmakers that the budget is a moral document, said the Rev. T. Randall Smith of the United Methodist Church and president of the Texas Impact board. “It is very important," Smith said, "that the Legislature have some voice calling them to accountability for the moral choices, the value choices in terms of the budgetary decisions.”