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Texas This Week: Ross Ramsey weighs in on the budget passed by the Texas House

This week, the Texas House passed the budget. But as Ross Ramsey of The Texas Tribune explains, lawmakers are leaving out a lot of money.

AUSTIN, Texas — In this edition of Texas This Week: legislation inspired by the deaths of two Texans came to the floor of the Legislature, a bipartisan congressional delegation is trying to tackle the crisis at the border and Ross Ramsey, executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, weighed in on the budget passed by the Texas House of Representatives.

Three things to know in Texas politics

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is one of four lawmakers who introduced "The Bipartisan Border Solutions Act" in Congress this week. The bill implements strategies to better handle the surge of migrants crossing the southern border.

Some of those strategies include creating four new regional processing centers, increasing the number of judges and asylum teams and offering new protections to unaccompanied children crossing the border who are released to sponsors in the U.S.

RELATED: Texas lawmakers announce bipartisan bill aimed at migrant surge at bordern

Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Fort Hood solider Vanessa Guillen. The 20-year old was brutally murdered by another soldier and her remains were found two months after she was reported missing. 

This week, members of the Texas House stood together on the House floor to remember her and unanimously pass a resolution calling on Congress to pass the "I Am Vanessa Guillen Act." The bill reforms the way the military addresses sexual harassment and misconduct.

In the Texas Senate, lawmakers unanimously passed bills written in response to the death of Houston native George Floyd. 

Senate Bill 68 by State Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) requires an officer to intervene if they see another officer using excessive force. Senate Bill 2212 by State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) requires officers to request medical care and render aid to someone who is injured while interacting with an officer.

Ross Ramsey discusses state budget

After hours of debate, the Texas House passed the state budget this week. But the State has a lot of money that lawmakers haven't yet decided how to spend. Ross Ramsey, executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, sat down with KVUE's Ashley Goudeau to break it all down.

Ashley Goudeau: This week, the House passed the budget. Talk to us about your overarching thoughts on this massive budget that they passed. 

Ross Ramsey: "So it's a, it's a huge bill. It's really about the same size as the current budget. It's right at a quarter of a trillion dollars, $247 billion right now. The Senate's at $250 billion. The two bodies have to go together and reconcile their differences. And, you know, the thing that strikes me about this budget is that two of the biggest pieces of spending that the State will do over the next few years aren't in the budget. 

The Biden administration – and the Trump administration before it – sent a lot of COVID relief money in the direction of Texas. There's about $38 billion out there. Some of it's school money, some of it's for cities and counties, some of it's for the State itself. None of it's in the budget yet. 

And then, there's a couple of big pieces of the state's Medicaid program that are in flux right now. The State applied for some federal, what they call a federal waiver, an 1115 waiver, and it's basically how the State handles uncompensated care for Medicaid patients at hospitals around Texas. They thought they had a 10-year extension from the Trump administration. The Biden administration said, 'You need to reapply, you didn't do a couple of things right here.' So, that's in play. 

And then, there's a group in the Legislature that wants to expand Medicaid. And this would bring insurance to about a million Texans who are currently not insured. It's a matching program. So, the State puts down a dime and gets back a dollar in benefits. But Republicans have had reservations about this program since it started under the Affordable Care Act, and the State hasn't gotten past those yet. Both of those things are in play. It's billions and billions of dollars also not in the budget."

RELATED: House votes to ban school vouchers, cap attorney general spending as part of its proposed $246 billion state budget

Goudeau: So, let's chat about that just a little more because I want to really hone in on some of those things. The money that came down, the COVID relief money for schools, for hospitals – why haven't we spent that money yet?

Ramsey: "There's a question of who should spend it and how they should spend it. So, one argument is that this money should go to the school districts in the state – between 1,100 and 1,200 of them – and that they should get to work, first on learning loss. This is the distance between what kids would have learned if we hadn't had all these pandemic disruptions and what they have learned with learning from home and all of those kinds of things. First, you [have] got to catch the kids up. The schools want to get on that starting in summer school. They want money to do that. And the Biden administration money is what they're talking about. 

The State is sort of looking at this and saying, 'We want to see what strings are attached to this before we spend any of it. And we also wonder if this wouldn't work better if we had a learning loss program that was signed up for by the Texas Education Agency [TEA] and then handed to the school districts so the money would flow through the state that way.' There's only five weeks left in the session and the Legislature wants to have its fingers on that money. The governor's office and the TEA want their hands on the money. The school districts want the money. We've got a little bit of a debate."

Goudeau: Right. And so, any indication as to how it might play out or where we stand? Because, as you mentioned, [there are] five weeks left. If the Legislature doesn't make a decision, what's going to happen to the money then? 

Ramsey: "Well, under normal circumstances, this money would go to the hands of the State executive. So, if the Legislature wasn't here, it would be in the governor's hands and in the hands of his appointees at the Texas Education Agency and so on. The Legislature has put some guardrails into the budget that basically say that the governor cannot spend any of the relief money without calling the Legislature back in. So, if they don't settle it in this session and if that provision stays in the budget as the House and Senate negotiate, then Gov. Abbott would have to call the Legislature back to decide what to do with the education money and with the money that's coming to the State, which amounts to another $16 billion or so."

Goudeau: Let's talk about that 1115 waiver and Medicaid. And so, we have tons of people moving to Texas every day. So, some of them may not be familiar with the fact that Texas is one of a dozen states that has not expanded Medicaid. And talk to us about some of the reasons why conservatives are against the idea of expanding Medicaid. 

Ramsey: "So, there are two issues here. One of them is Medicaid expansion. And, as you say, the conservatives in the state from Rick Perry on have been very, very leery of taking this money from the federal government. They didn't want to create a new entitlement. They think it has strings attached that will obligate the State if the federal government were to pull out. They don't think that taxpayers should be paying for this thing. And at the beginning of the argument, a lot of states weren't in this. Most states weren't in it. But now we're up to a point where all but 12 states, including Texas, have expanded their Medicaid program, including some really conservative states like Missouri, Arkansas and Idaho. 

But Texas is kind of holding its ground on this. It's a program. It's designed to insure the uninsured and get them into health plans so that, first of all, their insurance – they have insurance. Second of all, that they get preventative care instead of waiting until they need emergency care, which is more expensive and also puts a load on hospitals because they're coming in for free care. 

The 1115 waiver is a program that's already in place in Medicaid and that Texas takes advantage of. And it – basically they, the reason it's a waiver is there's a set of federal laws and the states can apply for customized pieces and the State of Texas has one. It's a big fat document like that. And they are asking for a waiver from the 1115 program. The Biden administration says they didn't do all of the things they needed to do, including holding public hearings, and that if they go like they're going, our current waiver will expire in September of 2022. So, we've got time to deal with it. But we've got these two issues. The waiver takes care of uncompensated care for hospitals and some other things. The Medicaid expansion, if we had it, would insure some of the Texans who are not insured now. Texas leads the nation both in the number of uninsured and the percentage of the population that's uninsured. It's complicated, but it's really important."

Goudeau: It really is important. And so, I want to ask you, do you think there is some push then by the Biden administration to say, 'Well, Texas, you're not expanding like we would like you to do. You have the highest rate of uninsured people. Maybe we're going to make it a little more difficult for you to get this 1115'?

Ramsey: "You know, I think the underlying politics are exactly as you describe. The Trump administration gave Texas a 10-year extension of this 1115 waiver. The Biden administration came in and said, 'Listen, we're going to sweeten the federal match on your current Medicaid program. So instead of you putting up 60, instead of us putting up 62%, we're going to put up 67%, give you some more money.' And the State didn't take that sweetener as a prompt for Medicaid expansion. And so, the Biden administration said, 'And by the way, the 10-year extension that the Trump administration gave you, we're going to rescind that and let this thing run through its current date of September 2022. We invite you to reapply.' So, they're putting some pressure on Texas, both in the form of sweeteners and in the form of programs they might take away to expand its Medicaid program."

Goudeau: The reason why I'm taking this in bites and steps, the reason why I want to talk about this, is because there was an amendment to the budget when the House was debating that kind of would have opened the door to Medicaid expansion. And there was so much hope that this could actually pass. There was the thought that it had enough support to pass. That ended up failing, right – sorry to spoil it. It didn't end up passing. But talk to us about what happened. 

Ramsey: "So, there's a piece of legislation that's separate from the budget that would expand the state's Medicaid program. And the people bringing that, it's mostly Democrats but they've got enough Republicans signed on that, that piece of legislation – [it] actually has a majority of the Texas House signed on as co-sponsors. So, if that gets out of committee, presumably it would pass on the floor because everybody with their name on it would vote for it. In the meantime, because that's stuck in committee, Garnet Coleman – a Democrat from Houston – put up an amendment to the budget that basically would have got the State rolling toward a Medicaid expansion program of a kind. And it got voted down. And as it turned out, seven – or all but one – of the Republicans who have signed on to Medicaid expansion as a separate bill, voted against it as a piece of the budget. It's a setback for those supporters, but that issue isn't dead yet."

Goudeau: So, when we talk about the budget, obviously the House spent all that time, spent all those hours going through nearly 240 pre-filed amendments on the floor. And now everything that they worked for goes behind closed doors to the conference committee. [That] is what's going to happen next. Tell us about the next steps.

Ramsey: "So, the Senate passed a bill a little bit earlier – it was the Senate's turn to go first. The Senate passed a bill a little bit earlier. The House passes a bill and they basically go into a room to reconcile their differences. The House will appoint five of its members, the Senate will appoint five of its members. That's called a conference committee. They'll go in and bang this out. As you say, it's mostly behind closed doors. It's supposed to be open, [but] open in the COVID age is a little bit different. But even when we don't have a pandemic going on, a lot of this gets settled in the back room and back hallways. And they basically go line by line through the budget and say, 'You have this, we have that. What do you want to do?' You know, scissors, paper, rocks or however they want to do it. As we pointed out in the first part of this, there are some big differences to settle and there are some big issues that are going to have to be part of the budget conversation that aren't yet there. So, that's going to be kind of interesting over the next month."


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