AUSTIN, Texas – Border legislators were split on the new $209 billion state budget for the 2016-2017 biennium – with six House members voting against the measure and 11 voting for it.

Among those voting “no” were three state representatives from the Rio Grande Valley – Armando Martínez, Sergio Muñoz and Terry Canales – and three from El Paso – Joe Moody, Mary E. González, and César Blanco.

Among those voting “aye” were five state representatives from the Rio Grande Valley – René Oliveira, Ryan Guillen, Eddie Lucio, III, R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, and Oscar Longoria – and two from El Paso – Joe Pickett and Marisa Márquez. Also voting “aye” were state Representatives Richard Peña Raymond of Laredo, Tracy O. King of Batesville, and Poncho Nevárez of Eagle Pass.

State Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr.
State Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr.

All five state senators from the border region – José Rodríguez, Carlos Uresti, Judith Zaffirini, Juan Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio, Jr – voted for House Bill 1. The bill is the only piece of legislation that must be approved. It did so and is now headed to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law.

Rep. Muñoz has, thus far, given the most detailed explanation for his vote against HB 1. The Mission Democrat, who is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations, originally supported HB 1 when it first hit the House floor. He said the bill then had some important provisions, such as $2.2 billion for public education. However, Muñoz said when the bill was reconciled with the Senate version, funding for public education dropped to $1.5 billion. Muñoz said the basic allotment per student was raised on average from $5,040 to $5,140.

“Looking towards the future and accounting for inflation, funding could drop below $5,000 per student in 2017 unless the Legislature acts to correct this,” Muñoz said. He said that one third of all schools in his district still get less than they did before the 2011 funding cuts. With a big surplus this session, those cuts could have been reversed, Muñoz said.

“Whereas this budget has some notable qualities that I support, such as partial payment for tuition revenue bonds for institutions of higher education, tax cuts, partial Pre-K funding, ERS and TRS funding, the overall budget has shortchanged public education, infrastructure, healthcare and created a permanent hole that will need to be filled next legislative session,” Muñoz argued.

Muñoz said he also disagreed with a decision to remove a proposed increase in the Medicaid reimbursement rate increases for doctors. “Currently, only 34 percent of doctors accept Medicaid patients, and the lack of a rate increase will bring this down even further.

Muñoz said Medicaid cost growth of inflation and acuity is still not funded, and the only way to afford the funding is through cost containment riders added by the Senate. “The cost containment initiatives result in $373 million in general revenue savings, but they are based primarily on cutting services, increasing premiums, and increasing or implementing higher co-payments. This is the third legislative session that cost containment riders are included for the purpose of dismantling the Medicaid service. The State should be preserving Medicaid’s integrity and functions rather than eliminating them,” Muñoz argued.

Muñoz said acute therapy rates have been cut by $150 million. He said this account for almost 25 percent of the entire programs funding. “Additional cuts will have a drastic effect on services and access,” Muñoz predicted. He said that in the original House version of HB 1, acute care therapy rates were to be examined with industry input so as not to disrupt or jeopardize the care for those serving children’s therapy.

Muñoz was also critical of the funding level for community care attendants. He said the hourly wage has been increased by only 14 cents, to $8 dollars an hour. “This is a departure from the request and House committee budget that funded $10 an hour. These workers are already denied health care and retirement benefits, yet they attend to and care for some of our most vulnerable and needy,” Muñoz argued.

Muñoz said he also did not like the fact that an additional $1.5 billion for transportation and infrastructure had been removed from the final budget.

Muñoz concluded his criticism of HB 1 by focusing on border security. The original House version appropriated $565 million but in the final version it ballooned to $800 million. “Increasing operations and funding a 10 hour workday is important to make our communities secure. However, with no additional resources to help our local law enforcement agencies, local law enforcement agencies will not be able to compete with the salaries of DPS,” Muñoz argued.

“The budget that we have sent to the Governor has many misplaced priorities. My colleagues and I in the House Appropriations Committee fought to increase funding and make our education and healthcare system meet the demands of our state. We addressed many of the critical infrastructure needs for transportation and deferred Capitol maintenance and improvements for facilities across our state. We started this legislative session with billions of dollars of extra spending money, and the current state budget leaves an estimated $13.4 to $14 billion in available general revenue dollars untouched. We missed the opportunity to better fund numerous underfunded state services and critical infrastructure needs,” Muñoz said.

“Our state budget should not supersede the needs of everyday Texans. When given the opportunity, the Legislature’s focus was to expend the state’s finances on border security and tax cuts, which amount to approximately $4.6 billion dollars. Although I support tax cuts, the legislature has created a permanent hole in the state budget that will need to be filled by the next Legislature. If not public or higher education, access to healthcare or transportation will continue to be underfunded and cut to fill that hole. That is why, in good conscience, I could not support the conference committee report to HB 1.”

State Rep. R.D. 'Bobby' Guerra
State Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra.

Rep. Guerra had a different take on the state budget. “Regarding House Bill 1, this year’s budget increased our efforts to successfully implement tax cuts for our small business owners into law. Next session, we’ll pick up right where we left off and finish the good work we started,” said the McAllen Democrat.

Sen. Hinojosa agreed. “The final budget adopted increases access and funding to services needed by our most vulnerable populations – the young, elderly, sick, and poor. We invested in infrastructure, border security, and our students. The budget will pave the way for an educated and healthy workforce and a successful Texas economy,” Hinojosa said.

Sen. Rodríguez said he voted for HB 1 with reservations.

“While I voted for this budget, I did so with misgivings. I believe deeply in the process, and in something that is bigger than our current partisan divides, the institution of the Legislature, and the democratic system it represents. The budget is the only bill we absolutely have to pass, and it represents the combined efforts of the entire Legislature, and thousands of hours of staff time. It allows us to keep government moving, and that includes funding for important local priorities,” Rodríguez said.

“With that, we missed important opportunities on education, continuing to support what has been ruled to be an unconstitutional school funding system, and health care, pursuing neither a ‘Texas Way’ nor any other option to expand access to affordable care. We threw $800 million at an expansion of DPS in both size and scope without providing for oversight or accountability, and we did so on the misguided and offensive premise that federal border enforcement and local law enforcement are not effectively doing their jobs.”

State Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, voted for HB 1. Unlike Muñoz, Herrero said the legislation provides a positive step forward for public education, increasing funding by $2.7 billion, a 6.8 percent increase from the 2014-2015 budget.

“I’m encouraged that the Legislature has made education a priority this session,” Herrero said. “While I am disappointed the budget did not include more funding for public education, I am pleased that we were successful in securing funding for several local priorities.”