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School plan shouldn’t harm other agencies

January 19, 2019

There’s a lot to like in the proposal in the Texas House of Representatives to increase state school funding by $9 billion over the next two years. But there’s nothing good about related plans to help finance this increase by reducing funding for health and human services as well as natural resources.

Neither one of those two parts of the state budget are overfunded. In fact, they have chronically scrimped by on less than they need. A big, prosperous state like Texas should not rob Peter to pay Paul. There has to be a way to boost school funding while at least maintaining the current budget levels for other vital parts of state government.

The proposed budget released last week by new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen would slash natural resources funding by 13 percent, or $124 million. That’s the kind of cutback taxpayers might expect in a major recession, not at a time when the state’s unemployment rate is the lowest ever recorded (3.7 percent)

The proposed cut in health and human services — including Medicaid — would be 3.2 percent, or $1.1 billion. That would harm many Texas even more. Health care is seriously underfunded in this state, and it undermines education and productivity. It causes more students and workers to call in sick because preventive doctor visits and vital medications aren’t always available to Texans on the lower rungs of the economic ladder — who might be trying hard to climb that ladder. Better schools would help them, but health care is important, too.

The House budget proposal will be paired up soon with one from the Senate. The final version that is presented to the governor will probably be a combination of both proposals, and of course Gov. Greg Abbott could either sign the final document into law or veto it.

That means there will a lot of negotiating going on over the next few months, within each chamber and between them. That debate needs to start with the premise that other vital areas of state government will not be raided to boost school funding.

No one in Texas wants a tax increase, so the Legislature’s challenge is to use the money that will be available over the next two-year budget cycle and spread it around as fairly as possible. That can be done without drastic cuts in health care or natural resources. The Rainy Day Fund is also growing to an impressive $15 billion, and some of that money could reallocated.

Lawmakers should treat the proposed House budget as a starting point, and quickly move away from these painful cuts. The goal of this session is to fix longstanding problems, not create new ones.

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