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Among Budget Writers, Easier to Tally Who's Not Returning

Finding the money to pay for the Medicaid programs will be an early challenge for whoever takes over the reins at Senate Finance and House Appropriations.

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Texas politicians love to repeat the line that the only thing they are required to do is pass the budget.

With this election season bearing witness to a wholesale changing of the guard among the GOP leadership, though, the actual process of writing the budget is a tad more challenging in the months leading up to next legislative session.

Basically, House Speaker Joe Straus is the only member of the Lege’s fiscal leadership team who will be returning. Consider the current members of the Legislative Budget Board:

•    On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is not coming back, and there hasn’t been a Senate Finance chair since Tommy Williams left back in October to take a job at Texas A&M.

Of the five Senate members of the LBB, only two Democrats — Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa and Judith Zaffirini — are coming back next session.

•    On the House side, Straus is coming back, but neither the House’s Appropriation chair — Jim Pitts — nor the House’s Ways and Means chair — Harvey Hilderbran — is coming back next session. Another Straus appointee to the board, Dan Branch, also isn’t returning to the chamber. The only current member apart from Straus who is coming back is Democrat Sylvester Turner.

To be sure, this is far from a crisis situation. The preliminary work on the budget is largely an agency- and staff-driven effort. On the House side, budget subcommittees have begun meeting to discuss the budget. And a select House committee on transportation funding has also stepped up to go over the Texas Department of Transportation’s budget.

But if the leaders of the main budget writing committees aren’t named until much later, it’s quite possible that they will have to put their names on budget bills that might contain things with which they do not agree.

That seems more likely on the Senate side since it won’t be known until November who the next lieutenant governor will be.

Dale Craymer of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association tells TW that the House used to have a rule requiring a replacement be named for chairs who are not returning next session. That rule, however, was dropped a few years ago, he said.

One pending item facing budget writers will be the unpaid bills from the last Legislature. Lawmakers every session must pass a supplemental budget because the regular budget almost never covers the entire cost of running the government for the full two-year budget cycle.

That is most often the case when it comes to the Medicaid program, which lawmakers are loath to give a penny more than necessary.

This biennium is no different. The latest estimate from HHS is that about $971 million will be needed to pay the full cost of the Medicaid program for the current fiscal period

Here’s where things get a little complicated. The last couple of years have been good to Texas on the revenue front. The LBB calculates the state has about $2.6 billion more in revenue than what was in the budget.

However, the spending cap — which is designed to keep the growth of state spending more or less in line with the overall economy — won’t allow lawmakers to use all of that additional revenue.

The LBB estimates that the amount of revenue available under the spending cap is around $500 million.

In other words, there’s not enough in easily appropriated money to cover the bill for Medicaid. Lawmakers can break the spending cap, but that would require a vote. Going on the record as being in favor of breaking a constitutional spending limit to fund growth in Medicaid is a vote most Republican lawmakers would prefer not to make.

That’s not to say that budget writers won’t figure out a creative alternative. Lawmakers generally prove adept at budget trickery when they have to be. But that’s a task that will fall on the shoulders of the Lege’s budget writers next session — whomever that might be.

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