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State budget cuts to hit Travis County

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Travis County officials have begun to hone in on how dramatic budget cuts at the state level will impact county operations. As he spoke to county commissioners Tuesday, Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator Deece Eckstein cited two documents that offer early analysis of what Texas’ counties might expect from this year’s state budget.


The first, a letter from Harris County’s Legislative Coordinator Amanda Jones, offers the court a neat summation of the situation. The second, a list of 45 items considered by the Texas Conference of Urban Counties to be “issues of note,” gives commissioners a broader look at what funding may be cut – and where they may have to pick up the slack.


Eckstein told the court that the budget bill “calls for significant cuts” and that many of those cuts “are going to affect Travis County.” Still, he reminded In Fact Daily that it is early in the game. “At this point, we’re just trying to figure out what’s at risk,” he said.


The premature nature of the situation did not dissuade commissioners from engaging in a brief conversation about how they might best mitigate the fallout. Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis asked Eckstein about a potential state constitutional amendment that would prohibit the state government from passing so-called “unfunded mandates” down to their local partners (see In Fact Daily, Whispers, Jan. 19). Eckstein told him that the bill was moving forward.


“I think the good news is that the unfunded mandates amendment has probably gotten more traction initially this session than it has in the past,” he said. “I think that there will be a serious discussion about unfunded mandates.”


He noted, however, that even if the amendment passed, it would have no effect on this year’s budget process. “This resolution is specifically designed to not take effect until after this session’s budget has taken effect,” he said.


Texas voters would have to approve any amendment to the state constitution. In this case, that would not happen until November.


Though it does not represent the position of any elected body, Jones’ letter could offer an early digest of how state cuts could impact local governments. “Funding for special needs populations, including the mentally ill and intellectual & developmental disabled was slashed,” she wrote. “Funding for community-based services seemed to be targeted for reductions more than institutional services.”


She continued, “Medicaid rates were cut by about 10 percent. Funding for autistic kids (Dept of Assistive & Rehabilitative Services) was ZEROED OUT (emphasis hers).”


Jones later added that, in her opinion, “Public Health fared much better.”


Eckstein pointed out that his office “had no editorial opinions about this stuff at this point.” He added that he would like to see the commissioners court engage in a discussion about the risks that the budget poses for Travis County and then direct his staff on what action they should take.


Travis officials have expressed their concerns about looming state cuts in health and human services and about how those reductions could be passed on to local governments through unfunded mandates.

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