Legislative Session: Transportation and health care lost out to water and education

Martha Deller Special to the Business Press

When the Texas Legislature opened in January, North Texas business leaders had high hopes that legislators would address several issues they consider critical to the region’s economy – water, transportation and education. As the regular session ended, however, they conceded that the region and its residents won some battles, lost some and, if they’re lucky, will get a chance to change the outcome in the special session now in progress. Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce government affairs director Matt Geske said public education and water came out on top of the battle for money from the state’s rainy day fund. Of $4 billion legislators agreed to take from that fund, about half will help restore $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion legislators took away from state schools in 2011. In addition, they set aside $2 billion from the fund to pay for future water needs. If voters approve a constitutional amendment in November, those funds would be transferred to two revolving funds to pay for regional and state projects. Transportation didn’t fare so well. The department received a fraction of its $4 billion request, which officials suggested obtaining from the rainy day fund and increased fees and taxes. Legislators approved about $1 billion in additional transportation funding, but supporters hope that the issue will be renewed during the special session. “We feel like the session was pretty good,” Geske said. “There’s always something more that we can work on, but overall, water, education and economic development have done pretty well. “I think transportation will be one of the bigger topics for 2015. Once the state Supreme Court rules on school funding, the Legislature may have to go back and redo school finance.” Also losing out during the regular session were a $2.7 billion bond package to fund higher education construction projects, including several in north Texas; and Medicaid expansion in Texas. Higher education supporters have asked that the bond construction package be considered again in the special session. Area health care officials don’t expect legislators to address Medicaid expansion this year but are pleased they adopted other health care measures.

Transportation Legislators rejected or failed to act on several suggestions by transportation officials to raise $4 billion in additional revenue – $3 billion for new roads and $1 billion for maintenance they say they need just to keep up with growing use. Vic Suhm, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, said increasing auto registration fees, which have been $30 since 1985, and state gas sales taxes, which have been 15 cents a gallon since 1991, is justified. But Gov. Rick Perry wanted tax and fee cuts, not increases, and legislators didn’t want to buck him, Suhm said. So transportation lost that potential revenue plus most of its $2 billion request from the rainy day fund, he said. Instead, the Legislature restored $400 million in highway money now diverted to public safety and allocated $450 million in rainy day money for repairs to roads deteriorating because of oil and gas production equipment, Suhm said. Suhm said transportation is not a high priority with the public and their elected officials because there is so much ongoing road construction, they don’t see the need. Those projects, most funded through public-private partnerships, will continue under a comprehensive development agreement authorized by the Legislature, he said. “That’s the methodology we’ve used the last decade to build capacity in this region,” Suhm said. “That’s how the North Tarrant Expressway, LBJ and other projects have been implemented. We can’t do those projects without legislative authority.” Area projects approved for continuation include extensions of the North Tarrant Expressway and Interstate 35W, he said. Health Texas Health Resources officials were disappointed but not surprised that legislators didn’t act on Medicaid expansion this year, said Wendell Watson, spokesman for the largest faith-based nonprofit health care system of 25 acute-care and short-stay hospitals in North Texas. Nor do they expect Perry to bring it up in the special session, he said. By not expanding Medicaid, Texas will forgo approximately $90 billion in federal funds that could have been received over the next 10 years to pay for Medicaid patients, Watson said, citing the October Perryman Report, which analyzes various economic issues. “We missed an opportunity to bring a lot more federal funding that would have paid for expanding coverage to people not currently covered by insurance and not eligible for Medicaid,” Watson said. “Medicaid expansion would have enabled working adults who are not disabled to qualify for Medicaid.” But Watson said Texas Health officials are relieved that the legislators passed some measures that will allow private health care providers to be reimbursed for treating patients without Medicaid or private insurance. For the first time, Watson said, legislators agreed to put $138 million in the general fund to be matched by federal funds. That will provide a total of $338 million to reimburse private health care providers who treat a disproportionate number of non-insured patients, he said. Legislators also included $17 million for graduate medical education, which will be used to expand first-year medical residency programs in hopes of keeping more Texas-trained doctors in the state, he said.  

Higher Education Construction A $2.7 billion state bond package to finance higher education construction projects throughout the state didn’t get much attention until it died on the final day of the regular legislative session, despite last-minute efforts to save it. Tuition revenue bonds sought but not authorized for North Texas universities include $66.6 million for an interdisciplinary research building at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth and $64.3 million to renovate and expand a life science building at University of Texas at Arlington. Other North Texas projects include $56 million each for law school renovations for the University of North Texas system and the UNT-Dallas library and student success center; and $37.9 million for a new science and technology building at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. Supporters are trying to get the issue on the special session agenda. If they don’t, it will be a blow for universities and their students, said UTA biology Professor Dan Formanowicz. “UTA’s life science building needs the renovation/expansion simply to allow us to give our students access and exposure to up-to-date technology used in life science research,” he said. “The building has reached its digital and electrical capacity and frankly is an embarrassment in terms of modern science infrastructure for a university of this size. “Any delays affect recruitment of both undergraduate and graduate students and our ability to recruit and retain faculty,” he said UNT Health Science Center officials say they are grateful that legislators approved operating funds for the new College of Pharmacy and are hopeful that the construction funding will be restored during special session. “Our research expenditures have quadrupled in the past six years, while our research space has remained flat,” said public relations director Dana Benton Russell. “The new building is essential to the future success of our research mission