Education, Medicaid, water and transportation issues flood Capitol


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on February 20, 2013 at 7:30 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 20 at 7:41 PM

AUSTIN -- Armed with signs, cupcakes and a giant check for $5.4 billion representing the 82nd Texas Legislature's cuts to public education funding, demonstrators defied the dreary weather to demand more money for public schools. 
"We're asking for restoring our funding that we lost in the last session. We're also asking a stop to outrageous testing," said Kristine Tarana, a parent with children enrolled in public schools in Austin.
Tarana and others gathered Wednesday on the South sidewalk holding signs demanding lawmakers to restore the cuts to education made in 2011.
"As a mom I want my children to have a great education," said Tarana. "Although my oldest is only in the third grade, I'm already thinking down the line how can I get my child into UT and be a third-generation Longhorn."
"What we know is 80 percent of Texans want quality, well-funded public schools," said Allen Weeks, director of Save Texas Schools. The group is scheduled to hold a rally Saturday at the Texas State Capitol featuring hundreds of demonstrators from across Texas.
"In the last week or so we've seen a shift, and we want to give them the courage to stand up and make sure we don't get pennies back," Weeks said.
Despite periodic drizzle, the Capitol grounds were flooded by advocates. Each voiced concerns over issues of importance to be taken up by the 83rd Texas Legislature.
"I think the drought has magnified the needs of the water challenges facing our state moving forward," said Scott Norman with the Texas Association of Builders. While transportation issues and funding the state water plan are top concerns for builders, Norman says they're issues of critical importance to all Texans.
"As we are trying to meet the housing needs of Texas moving forward, as our population continues to grow, as our economy continues to grow, water will be vital," said Norman. "Not just directly for our industry for future housing needs but for the economic well-being of the state."  
Another major statewide issue is funding for infrastructure for transportation, providing the horsepower for the state's economic engine. A bright yellow 18-wheeler parked along Colorado Street West of the State Capitol urged drivers to "share the road," while a shiny red Freightliner cab parked nearby showed off the newest in compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel technology.
Inside the Capitol, advocates for Texas' fleet of professional drivers raised concerns over the state of Texas roads.
"The neglect is catching up," said Texas Motor Transportation Association President John Esparza. "We've been working for several sessions now on how we fund our roads currently, whether that's the maintenance of the existing roads or the new roads that are needed with the thousand people that are moving to the state every day and the thousand people being born every day, we've got a lot of freight coming through the state right now." 
"It's not secret that the energy resources beneath the state surfaces are being brought to the surface at record levels right now, especially in the last several years," Esparza explained. "This could last for some time. Well it requires a lot of trucks to move goods and services and you've got to load equipment to make all that happen, therefore there's a lot of congestion on roads that were designed for less traffic and less weight."
On the North steps, county leaders joined with state lawmakers and religious groups to call for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Estimates suggest the $15 billion in state money required to expand the program would secure the state $100 billion in federal funds to which Texas taxpayers are already contributing.
"Economically it makes all the sense in the world to go ahead and access these federal dollars. If we don't do that, then that burden shifts to cities, counties and health care districts at the local level, not at the state level," said Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. "All the other states in the country or most of them will access these federal dollars. The money will be spent somewhere, we might as well spend our share here in the state of Texas."
Despite state leaders' warnings it will be another tight budget session, Weeks argues there's still enough to go around. 
"We'll have almost $9 billion in the rainy day fund, which is where the transportation and water money, where they're talking about taking that out of. So we really do have the revenue to do the right thing for kids," Weeks said.   
What the budget will bring is still up in the air.