P.O. Box 12068, State Capitol
Austin, Texas 78711
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Session's Budget Challenges Prompt Needed Reforms
By Senator Jane Nelson
Editor's Note: This is the first of two reports by Senator Nelson on the accomplishments of the legislative session.
Challenging times often present opportunities, and the Texas Legislature used our budget difficulties to make state government more efficient and effective. When the session began, we set out to meet our basic service needs; balance the state budget without a tax increase; draw fair and legal maps in the redistricting process; and enact policies that reflect the values and priorities of the citizens of this state -- who sent a loud and powerful message in the last election cycle for government to live within its means.
It was a difficult journey -- one that took a month longer than normal. However, I am pleased to report that we accomplished most of our objectives.
The Legislature approved a $172.3 billion two-year budget -- down 8 percent from the biennium that ends Aug. 31. By keeping spending low, we protect the Texas economy, which moved past New York over the past decade to become the nation's second-largest economy.
A third of our budget goes to public education. As a former teacher and mother of two daughters who teach, my number one priority was to minimize the impact of our budget challenges have on our schools. Here in North Texas, families want high quality education for their children. We support our teachers. And we expect our educational system to make efficient use of their tax dollars. I am pleased we were able to preserve teacher-student ratios; do away with several unfunded mandates on our local school districts; and give school districts more flexibility in the way they manage their workforce.
Another third of our budget is spent on health and human services, and I chaired the Senate subcommittee responsible for writing that part of the budget. Our Medicaid costs are growing at an unsustainable rate, eating away at other priorities. There also is a discrepancy in how the federal government distributes funds. Texas provides 8.4 percent of federal tax receipts but receives only 6.8 percent of federal Medicaid funds, which means we send $3.2 billion to the federal government to pay for other states' Medicaid programs. My SB 7 enacted the statutory changes needed to balance the state budget and achieve $467 million in savings, through efficiencies. The bill also authorizes Texas to join with other states in a compact agreement to seek permission from the federal government for Texas to design its own health care programs.
Because the state grew 20.6 percent to 25,145,581 people over the last decade, the redistricting process was a reflection of our state's growing pains and changing demographics. The Census found that Senate District 12, which I represent, was the second most overpopulated district in the state -- with 1.2 million people. With the new ideal Senate district population at 811,000, it was necessary to lose over 200,000 constituents, which was extremely difficult because I love every inch of this Senate district. In the Texas House, Denton and Tarrant counties each picked up a new seat, which will give our area a stronger voice in Austin. On the federal level, Texas gains four new seats in Congress -- from 32 to 36 seats in the U.S. House. To view the newly drawn maps, visit http://www.tlc.state.tx.us/redist/redist.htm.
Another theme of the session was the impact the 2010 election had on the decisions that were made. As a conservative who represents a conservative district, it was a positive impact. We were able to pass a voter ID bill to protect the integrity of our elections; reduce frivolous lawsuits with a "loser pays" provisions; and fully inform pregnant women seeking abortions with sonogram images of their unborn child.
There were some disappointments, as always. I would have liked to have seen a new congressional seat anchored in the North Texas suburbs. The bill banning sanctuary city policies that I co-authored did not pass in the special session and we did not take needed action against repeat drunken drivers. However, we did heed the call of voters who expect us to continue the fiscally responsible policies that will put Texas on a path to even greater prosperity.
Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is Chairman of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee.