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Analysis: What the Numbers in the Texas Budget Really Mean

Numbers can give you a full accounting of something without telling you what’s really going on, like when lawmakers talk about trimming budgets and saving money while diverting attention from whatever fell on the cutting room floor.

Lauretta Jackson, a physical therapist from Any Baby Can, works with Sara weekly to improve her body strength. Nonprofit therapy providers are worried budget cuts made by lawmakers will put them out of business.

Numbers can give you a full accounting of something without telling you what’s really going on, like when lawmakers talk about trimming budgets and saving money while diverting attention from whatever fell on the cutting room floor.

It’s not really deceitful, just the result of trying to digest a big, fat document with more than $200 billion in little decisions inside. Many of them — most, perhaps — can slip by. Generally, you get the big pieces and a lot of details. There was a story last year on the half-million bucks the state is spending to keep the Texas Almanac alive, and another on pared-down incentives for movie and video game makers.

Others spring like traps. One of those pieces on the cutting-room floor would have paid for therapy for kids. It was in the news this week because of a lawsuit the state won. A lawsuit the kids lost.

Budgets aren’t just numbers, but the debates over what goes in them and what stays out can sound like that. They always contain things you wouldn’t like, exclude things you might consider essential and throw in a bunch of stuff you never heard about — and might never hear about.

That story about cuts to pediatric therapy services, from the Trib’s Edgar Walters, was a reminder of what the numbers mean.

Sure, the budget balanced. That’s required by state law.

But the people who were affected by the Legislature’s financial work aren’t concerned by the numbers, or about the money that those numbers represent. They want the services in those programs: speech, physical and occupational therapy provided to disabled children.

And, as the courts decided this week, the people writing the state budget have the right to turn those services off — even if that might not be what they were thinking about when they got the numbers in order in last year’s legislative session.

Budget writers and the people who write about them cover this from the top level, most of the time.

This is how budget stories often read, from the top of a Matthew Watkins story that the Tribune ran in April 2015: “The Texas Senate approved a two-year, $211 billion budget on Tuesday that would grow spending by billions while cutting property and franchise taxes. The bill will now go to conference committee, where it will be reconciled over the next few weeks with the House version passed earlier this month. Budget writers say the 2016-17 spending plan helps public schools, boosts border security and enhances employee retirement funds. A growing state economy makes those expenditures possible, senators said.”

Great overview, and maybe all you wanted to know. Maybe even more than you wanted to know. It’s accurate, catches you up on what happened and lays out the budget in the way most lawmakers would — in a blow-by-blow accounting of what happened to the dollars.

A Tribune analysis of the final budget from last June even set out some of the fine points. But neither gets at the whole picture.

Kids file in and out of the House and Senate galleries throughout the 140 days of a regular legislative session. They are mostly on excursions sponsored by schools and other organizations, in the Capitol to wonder at the magnificent building, to skip a day of arithmetic and history and to hear the drones of the elected officials in the Legislature.

They aren’t there to lobby. The lobbyists and the people they lobby are adults. The lobbyists, more often than not, are paid by companies with interests subject to what business professors call “legislative risk” — the chance that the government will do something to hurt or help their businesses.

When a budget is being written, that makes it look like each line of numbers and each conversation is about how the state will spread its money among various vendors and other program and service providers.

In fact, that’s part of what’s happening. Those providers — in this case, therapists — who were among those on the losing side of that lawsuit want to get paid. That’s not very sympathetic.

But that’s not the whole story, or the reason this stuff is in the budget in the first place. This is: It’s in the budget to get therapy for disabled kids who won’t otherwise get it.

Like everything else in that big, fat state budget, it’s not just about the money.

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