An Austin institution for people with disabilities will be closed, and others across the state will be identified later for closure, under a bill tentatively approved by the Texas Senate on Monday.

Senate Bill 204, a package of structural changes to the Department of Aging and Disability Services, would direct the state to close the Austin State Supported Living Center for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“This is a very sensitive issue for families and for us,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, the bill’s author, adding that the closure process would probably take eight to 10 years. “This would not be done overnight.”

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, voted against the bill, which passed 27-4. He gave an impassioned speech before the Senate vote.

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“I will candidly tell you that this has been a very difficult and emotional issue for me," he said. "Although some of my friends disagree with me, I also support the perspective of family members and guardians who feel strongly, and with good reasons, that state-supported living centers or similar facilities are the best places for their loved ones.”

The bill followed the recommendations of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which last year found that the state could “no longer afford” the cost of operating all of its 13 state-supported living centers.

At one time, the institutions had 13,600 residents, but today only about 3,400 people live in the centers, Hinojosa said. 

The future of the facilities has been controversial for years. In 2009, Texas lawmakers agreed to a $112 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over abuse and neglect at the facilities. Despite declining enrollment, high costs and calls for closure in favor of community-based care, families with relatives in the facilities and lawmakers who have them in their districts have fought to keep them open.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who has two state-supported living centers in her district, said she voted for the bill in committee “with a heavy heart.” 

“We have made great improvements to our state-supported living centers," she said.

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