Published 11:53 am Monday, January 23, 2017

Special to The Leader

The first draft of the budget was filed this week by Flower Mound Senator and Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, setting the baseline for budget negotiations in the Senate.  Last week, lawmakers found out that they had $104.9 billion in projected revenue to spend for the 2018-2019 biennium and the Senate budget comes in just under that, appropriating $103.6 billion in state revenue.  Nelson said in a statement that declining oil and gas revenue coupled with strong population growth  will present challenges to budget writers in the coming months.  “We have difficult decisions to make this session, and we will work tirelessly to address the needs of the state in a responsible manner,” Senator Nelson said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Nelson named three areas of particular concern: education finance, mental health services  and growing costs in Medicaid and the state pension system.  The Senate base budget for education includes $2.65 billion to cover an expected enrollment growth of 80,000 students over the next two years, as well as $32 million for high quality pre-k programs.  For mental health, the budget starts at $1 billion to improve the state hospital system and other state facilities and $63 million to clear waitlists for community mental health services.

Other key line items include fully funding border security measures approved last session with $800 million, $260 million to address the state’s beleaguered child protective services system, and $25 million for a program to purchase high-caliber bulletproof vests for police officers, a program unveiled by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick just last week.  In a statement issued Tuesday, Patrick praised Nelson for her initial budget proposal. “This budget is well within the available revenue and upholds our commitment to continue to live within our means and not spend more than the growth of our population times inflation,” he said.

Also this week, a panel of Senators and Representatives met to hear a progress report on the monumental task of consolidating the state’s five health and human services agencies into three.  A bill last session directed the transformation after state auditors found the five agencies were difficult to navigate for clients, were rife with compartmentalization and lack of a interagency communication, and had too much confusion over authority at the management level.

The plan passed in 2015 would eliminate the Department of Aging and Disability Services and Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services and move their duties to the Health and Human Service Commission, in order to have all client services managed by the same agency.  The Department of State Health Services, which manages the state’s Medicaid program, and the Department of Family and Protective Serivices, which oversees child and elder protective services, will remain independent.

HHSC Executive Commissioner Charles Smith said the first step, launching a new, better website and moving DARS services was completed on time by September 1, 2016, but the next phase will be a much bigger task.   “Our progress here is in getting ready for the next phase, which is undergoing the transformation in bringing in 24,000 new employees into the system,” he said.  “That represents six times the number of employees we moved in September.”  Smith added that it will bring the total number of employees at the HHSC to about forty-thousand.  That phase of the consolidation is scheduled for completion by September of this year.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, January 23 at 2 p.m.