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AUSTIN, Texas – The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is to receive $53.5 million for its School of Medicine, state Rep. Oscar Longoria has confirmed.

Funding for the medical school, regarded by many as the No. 1 agenda item of the session for the Valley, was contained in the $217 billion 2018-2019 state budget, otherwise known as Conference Committee Report on Senate Bill 1, which was approved Saturday by the House and Senate.

The School of Medicine will receive $11.5 million in formula funding and $42 million in special item funding.

UTRGV had requested $70 million for its medical school at the start of the legislative session. Getting to $55 million was no mean feat as the original Senate version of SB 1 had less than $25 million appropriated.

“I am most proud to have secured funding for Graduate Medical Education – an additional $44.1 million in expansion money to increase the number of residencies, which will greatly help our new UTRGV School of Medical and future cohorts,” said Longoria, a Democrat from La Joya and vice chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations.

(Editor’s Note: Reporter Jacqueline Arias will have a story on UTRGV reaction to the School of Medicine funding in our next edition.)

State Budget


The state budget is the only piece of the legislation House and Senate members have to pass in a legislative session. SB 1 passed the House on a 135-14 vote. It passed the Senate on a 30-1 vote. The lone senator to vote against was Sylvia Garcia of Houston.

Garcia, a Democrat, said: “This budget is more of the same and fails Texas families. There’s no new money for pre-k, there’s continued spending on more border militarization, and it continues to shortchange education and healthcare. It doesn’t represent the values of my district so I voted against it,” Garcia said.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

One of the 14 House members to vote against the new state budget was state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat from Austin who has roots in the Rio Grande Valley. Rep. Rodriguez said: “The budget approved today increases funding for further militarization of the border by hundreds of millions of dollars and allocates over $20 million dollars to decrease gun license registration fees, while slashing the funding we restored for disabled children’s acute therapy services in the House. Further, it purports to increase funding for public education while shifting the burden for school finance from the state to local property taxpayers.”

Rep. Rodriguez said SB 1 conferees, which reconciled differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill, “might have worked hard to balance the books.” However, he said, in doing so they have “put off addressing some of the most serious problems facing our state.” Rodriguez added: “With this budget, the Texas Legislature has continued its tradition of building deep structural flaws into our state’s finances while failing to invest in our future.”

Border Security


In a news release, Rep. Longoria did not address claims from critics that appropriating $800 million for border security would further militarize the Valley. Longoria pointed out he had secured $3.2 million in general revenue funding for a Law Enforcement Operations Center in Peñitas.  The Law Enforcement Operations Center facility will accommodate 30 Texas Highway Patrol officers and have sufficient space for offices and meeting space, Longoria explained.

Longoria said he was also able to direct $1 million in general revenue grants to reimburse first responder agencies – including professional and volunteer fire departments – in the border region for costs incurred while providing emergency response services associated with the execution of law enforcement activities relating to border security. Additionally, Longoria said, SB1 provides $25 million in grants to local law enforcement for bulletproof vests under the Trusteed Programs within the Office of the Governor.

Healthcare


Longoria said a highlight for the Valley with SB 1 was the priority it gave to healthcare. He said 25 percent of Medicaid therapy rate reductions implemented in December 2016 has been restored and $300 million has been appropriated to replace or significantly repair state hospitals and other inpatient mental health facilities throughout the state.

Additionally, $62.6 million has been appropriated to eliminate the current and projected waiting lists for community mental health services for adults and children, Longoria said. Also, $37.5 million will be spent on establishing a mental health community grant program targeted towards jail diversion.

Longoria said he worked alongside state Rep. Sarah Davis, a Republican from Houston, to secure $600,000 in the biennium to implement a sentinel surveillance program to monitor emerging and neglected tropical diseases, such as Zika, through the Department of State Health Services.

Education


Longoria said an additional $71.4 million will go towards financial aid for students, ensuring 92 percent of eligible students will be covered. He said $2 million will go towards Texas Education Opportunity Grants (TEOG) to help community college students. Indeed, community colleges received an additional $18 million for their core funding and $11.4 million for success points, Longoria said.

State Rep. Oscar Longoria

Longoria said he assisted in appropriating $1 million for the Library & Archives Commission to assist public libraries in applying for E-Rate funding and one-year of support for increased broadband costs at discounted rates, especially vital for our rural communities and schools.

Overall, Longoria said SB 1 was a responsible and balanced state budget. While acknowledging that it was lean, the La Joya Democrat said it continues to put Texans first, prioritizes education, transportation, border security, and mental health.

“We have worked diligently to address the state’s most pressing issues and I am confident that while we may not have funded all programs and agencies to the extent we would have liked to, we did fund them to the best amount allowable, given our budget constraints,” Longoria said.

“As the Vice-Chairman of Appropriations, I worked conscientiously to ensure that any reductions made were done so responsibly, keeping in mind the millions of Texas families that are affected by the decisions we make. Therefore, I can present this budget proudly to you, knowing that it has been crafted with the best intentions and addresses the needs of our state.”

Longoria added: “I am especially thankful for the leadership of Speaker Straus and Chairman Zerwas, they did an outstanding job working alongside us in the Texas House to ensure that we all contributed to a healthy, responsible, and fiscally sound budget that continues to meet the needs of all Texans and our growing state.”

Rep. Sergio Muñoz


Rep. Longoria is one of the two Texas House members that represent western Hidalgo County. The other is state Rep. Sergio Muñoz of Mission.

State Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr.

While Longoria voted for SB 1, Muñoz voted against it.

“Today I strongly voted not to concur on the conference committee report for Senate Bill 1, the state’s budget bill. The Conference Committee Report we voted on today was very different than the budget the House passed in April. The Conference Committee Report spent almost $1.4 billion less than what we originally appropriated,” Muñoz, a Democrat said.

“Only 14 Representatives voted against S.B. 1, and I am proud to have been one of them. There are major cuts happening, and Texas’ most vulnerable deserve much more.”

Funding losses and reductions in SB 1, Muñoz said, include:

•    Health & Human Services loses $2.4 billion
•    Public schools will lose over $1 billion
•    Civic Legal Services loses $5.7 million
•    No significant changes to address the rising health care expenditures shouldered by our retired    teachers were taken
•    The failure of HB 21, an effort to change our school finance system, further reduces public education funding of $1.6 billion
•    Acute therapy services only received a 25 percent restoration in the cuts made during the 84th Legislative Session

“Although the budget allocates funds towards mental and behavioral health, Child Protective Services, water development and conservation, and historical preservation, I cannot in good conscience support the cuts in funding to other necessary state programs; especially, when we are leaving well over $11 billion dollars in the “Rainy Day” Fund,” Muñoz said.

“We can no longer afford to keep kicking the can down the road and worrying about the next election cycle or next legislative session. The people of Texas expect us to fix the most pressing issues our families face on a daily basis. When are we going to put people before politics? Barely providing funds to the most vulnerable and then allocating several million dollars towards pet projects, is a disgrace to families dependent on acute therapy care for their child. It is not acceptable to tell our children that this is the best that we can do.”

Coastal Bend perspective


State Rep. Abel Herrero

Like Longoria, state Rep. Abel Herrero, a Democrat from Robstown, also voted for SB 1. Herrero said he was particularly pleased that the Legislature funded an additional 597 Child Protective Services caseworkers. This is in addition to the 829 new caseworkers that state leaders authorized in late December and that legislators formally approved with the passage of House Bill 2, the budget bill for the rest of the current fiscal year.

“I’m encouraged that the Legislature took steps to increase resources for child protective services to help protect our most vulnerable,” Herrero said. “While this budget funds important items, there is still work to be done in the future on issues like public education. Therefore, I will continue to fight to ensure our communities receive the support they need to succeed.”

Herrero pointed out the state budget includes funds that will help the Coastal Bend area, including $7 million over the biennium for unmanned aircraft systems at Texas A&M University Corpus-Christi, and $4.6 million to support the Engineering Program at Texas A&M University Corpus-Christi. He said the budget also includes $350 million in additional funding for retired teachers. An amendment to the budget by Herrero earlier in the session ensured that no public funds will be diverted from neighborhood classrooms to private schools.

El Paso perspective


State Sen. José Rodríguez said SB 1 was a “tough vote.” However, he did support it. “There are missed opportunities in the budget that will hurt the state’s ability to continue competing in the future,” Rodríguez said.

Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said he was concerned about the level of funding for public education. He pointed out that while the state added enough money to account for overall growth in the number of students –  maintaining a per-student funding level of $5,140 – it did not account for inflation. This, he said, means the dollar per student doesn’t go as far.

State Sen. José Rodríguez

Rodríguez said SB 1 also undercounted Medicaid obligations over the next two years by projecting a lower number of patients than Texas will have. This, he said, has become routine and ensures each session begins with an “iou” of between $1 billion and $2 billion.

“Instead of prioritizing these needs, the state instead put nearly $1 billion into ‘border security,’ a phrase that inaccurately frames our communities as threats, instead of as the opportunities that we are. El Paso and other border communities are important to the state and nation for trade, cultural exchange, and great places to live and work,” Sen. Rodríguez said.

“Further, our communities have generally low crime rates – especially El Paso, which has overall rates below the state average – and there’s no evidence that the state has diminished crime rates or availability of drugs. Given the enormous expenditures, one would expect to see some data to indicate what Texas taxpayers got for their money.”

Rodríguez added: “It is said that a budget is an expression of priorities. If so, much in this budget, like border security funding, represents misplaced priorities. But it also attempts a careful balance of interests, based on hard numbers and factual data. We’ve made the mistake of constraining ourselves to the point where we struggle to meet our needs, even though we have the means to do so. Without doing something extraordinary, this budget reflects the best effort this body is able to make. It is in that spirit that I vote for this budget.

Rodríguez listed some El Paso area highlights:

  • Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center-El Paso received $142 million for the biennium, including a rider to establish the dental school.
  • UTEP received $229.2 million for the biennium, including continued support for the pharmacy school.
  • EPCC received $63.6 million for the biennium.
  • Intelligent Transportation System: Authorization for $32 million for a system to streamline commercial traffic at the Zaragoza Bridge and Bridge of the Americas.
  • McDonald Observatory: $5.2 million for the biennium.
  • Rio Grande Compact / Texas-New Mexico Water Lawsuit: $500,000, and allowance for increments of $1 million.
  • 8th Court of Appeals District, El Paso: $3.374 million for the biennium.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick


Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, said of SB 1:

“This state budget is more than a billion dollars less in general revenue than our current budget. It upholds our commitment to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and to live within our means. It maintains almost $11 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. I said at the beginning of this session that we would not spend the Rainy Day Fund on ongoing expenses, and I have kept that promise. This budget contains no new taxes and no new fees. At $106.7 billion, it reduces spending for most state agencies.

“The Texas economy is the tenth largest in the world and we are one of the fastest growing states in the United States, but we have met the challenge of keeping this budget well below the growth of our population times inflation while meeting the critical needs of the state in a tight budget cycle.

“This budget maintains $800 million for border security and fully funds the Foundation School Program including the estimated 80,000 students added to our schools each year from population growth. It includes a half billion dollars for 600 additional Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) workers and adds an additional $230 million for mental health services. Additional highlights include:

  • $25 million for protective vests capable of high-caliber rifle protection for every Texas law enforcement officer
  • $40 million for Texas ports infrastructure projects
  • $440 million to renovate our deteriorating state hospitals
  • $100 million to restore the Alamo and make repairs on our National Guard armories.
  • $44 million in graduate medical education to increase the number of doctors in Texas
  • $27 million for military and veteran education

“This budget also provides property tax relief for the spouses of first responders who are killed in the line of duty. It reduces the cost of concealed handgun license fees from one of the highest in the nation to one of the lowest. It strengthens the ban on any state funds going to Planned Parenthood.

“I want to thank Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jane Nelson and all the members of the Finance Committee for their hard work on the budget. This budget will help ensure that Texas continues to be the economic leader of the nation.”

Speaker Joe Straus


Speaker Joe Straus, who presides over the Texas House, said of SB 1:

“We started with a sizable shortfall, but we are ending this session with a balanced budget that invests in some very important priorities. We’re keeping overall spending low while improving child protection and mental health care.”

Straus said the Legislature and Governor Greg Abbott made Child Protective Services and the state’s foster care system a priority this session. He said the budget provides an additional $508 million for child protection, including $88 million in new funding for almost 600 CPS caseworkers, $85.4 million to enhance foster care provider rates and $32.5 million in additional support for family members who take in abused children, which is also known as kinship care.

“These caseworkers will allow CPS to see children more quickly and more frequently,” Straus said. “This budget will help Texas do a better job of protecting innocent children.”

Straus said another top priority for the Texas House has been mental health care. He said the budget provides $300 million for new construction, significant repairs and increased capacity at state mental health hospitals. He said it also appropriates $62.7 million to eliminate projected waiting lists for community mental health services for adults and children and $37.5 million for a new mental health jail diversion program.

“We are taking a major step forward in our treatment of mental health in Texas. This budget will allow us to implement reforms that we’ve been working on for two years,” Straus said.

Straus said SB 1 also avoids severe cuts to higher education that were discussed earlier in the legislative session.

Straus said the final version of Senate Bill 1 also includes:

*              $75 million in education funding to offset share declines in property values in some school districts.

*             An additional $71.5 million for Texas Grant scholarships, allowing the program to reach 92 percent of eligible students.

*             More than $100 million to address critical cybersecurity and IT needs across state agencies.

*             $160 million for deferred maintenance at state schools and hospitals.

*              $90 million for critical life and safety repairs across state facilities.

*             A 25 percent restoration of rates for Medicaid therapy services.

Center for Public Policy Priorities


Center for Public Policy Priorities Executive Director Ann Beeson issued the following statement on SB 1:

Ann Beeson

“The state budget for 2018-2019 is a mixed bag that, overall, does not do enough to invest in a strong future for hard-working Texans and their families.

“We appreciate the lawmakers who worked tirelessly to support Child Protective Services, mental health services and other critical items. But budget writers failed to make meaningful investments in public education, underfunded Medicaid enough to ensure a large supplemental bill for the 2019 Legislature, and did the bare minimum for higher education.

“Budgets are moral documents that demonstrate our priorities as a state, and in too many instances this budget represents misguided priorities. We look forward to working with lawmakers and local leaders across Texas to find resources to support communities in which both businesses and families can thrive.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Houston, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, and its vice-chairman, state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Esmeralda Torres contributed to this story from Austin.

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