WEEK IN REVIEW
(AUSTIN) — The state budget picture was complicated this week by an announcement that lawmakers could have to come up with another billion dollars to cover rising Medicaid costs. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Finance Committee Chair Senator Steve Ogden briefed reporters Tuesday on how the recommendation from the Legislative Budget Bureau will impact the state budget, now in conference committee. "The budget's tight, and it just got tighter," said Ogden. Dewhurst and Ogden said lawmakers will craft a balanced budget before the session's end on June 1, but budget writers will have to closely watch how discretionary money is appropriated.
The Senate approved a measure Monday that would cap the growth in the cost of higher education at Texas public colleges and universities. SB 1443 wouldn't just limit the growth of tuition, but caps the growth in total academic costs, including mandatory and class fees. "There will be no more games played, about comparing tuition versus tuition plus fees," said author Senator Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. "Every institution will now be looking at total academic cost, and that is a significant improvement."
Universities that exceed the state median for total academic cost could only raise the cost of education by 5 percent per year, or the rate of inflation over the past three years, whichever is lower. The bill would also permit lawmakers to set a lower cap, and could withhold general revenue from universities that exceed that cap. The bill now heads to the House for further approval.
Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill that would make children's health insurance more affordable for parents close to the poverty line. SB 841 would permit families with an annual income up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, about $66,000 for a family of four, to buy in to the state Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Parents would pay part of the premium, which would increase based on income, but the cost to families couldn’t exceed 2.5 percent of annual income. "Currently if you make 200 percent plus one dollar, you're not eligible for this program," said bill author Senator Kip Averitt of Waco. "Under this bill, families will have the opportunity to pay part of the premium, so that they can grow into fully paying for their own health insurance for their own children."
Also this week, the Senate approved a bill Friday that would ban the use of trans-fats in foods served at restaurants. SB 204, by El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh, would require chain restaurants to stop using these harmful fats by 2010, and would require smaller and independent restaurants to comply by 2011. Grocery stores, non-profit organizations and bakeries are specifically exempted under the bill. Trans-fats are artificially produced fats that have a longer shelf life than natural fats and oils, but are believed to be more harmful to cardiovascular health.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, May 11 at 11 a.m.