Senators discuss upcoming legislative session with chamber
By Joe Southern
The Texas Legislature would love to increase funding for public education but rising healthcare costs are killing their ability to do so.
That was the message delivered by Fort Bend County’s two state senators during a legislative update luncheon Nov. 2 at the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce. Senators Joan Huffman and Lois Kolkhorst talked about several of the issues they anticipate for the upcoming biannual legislative session but the biggest topic was the funding of healthcare and its stranglehold on the rest of the state’s budget.
“One of the things that’s driving the budget are healthcare costs,” Huffman said. “Last session we had to contribute at the last minute an extra $768 million just to shore up the Teacher’s Retirement System for that biennium.”
Huffman said it will only get more difficult once the legislature gets down to business next year.
“We’re looking at a shortfall this coming session of $1.6 to $1.8 billion (in the TRS). What’s driving this is healthcare costs. It’s not necessarily that we’ve suddenly made the plans richer or that teachers are getting sicker; it’s not that, it’s just the cost of healthcare,” she said.
Funding healthcare is affecting every budget in the state.
“It used to be that healthcare was a slice of the pie but that education had a much bigger slice. Now we see that healthcare and education as a total costs of the budget are pretty much neck-and-neck, so you superintendents here and school board members, you need to understand that these are costs that are not allowing us to maybe do some of the things we’d like to do in education,” she said.
Acknowledging that there needs to be changes made to the way public schools are funded, Huffman cautioned educators to not get their hopes up for this session.
“We’ll have a very frugal budget, a very conservative budget. We’ll be very lean and there will not be a lot of room for a lot of extras, but I do think we will meet the needs that need to be met for the state,” she said. “I think we will fund the enrollment growth for education and we’ll do the basic things we need to get done, but until we get our arms around healthcare costs I think we’re going to continue to struggle. There’s not much we can do about the price of oil but we can look toward the future in a conservative way.”
Huffman said a lot of what they do in the legislature hinges on who wins the White House.
“I think looking at the federal elections, depending on who wins, that will change kind of the course that we take in the session,” she said.
Without naming candidates or parties, she implied that a Hillary Clinton presidency might increase healthcare costs while a Donald Trump presidency might create more flexibility.
“Some of us are in a wait-and-see mode right now to see what that national picture looks like,” she said.
Kolkhorst offered her own solution to stemming the high cost of healthcare.
“To solve healthcare you’ve got to empower the patient,” she said. “If I could wave a magic wand, what I would do on all these entitlement programs is, I would load a card and say that is your cash, you mange it. You start asking what things cost, you ask what that prescription costs, you ask if there is a generic, you say I need this MRI, well, how much does it cost here and then I call around and find, gosh, I could save $2,000 by going down the road. I think I’ll go down the road.
“And you put market pressures on even a system as big as you alls (Memorial Hermann) you begin to put market pressures and you’ll see two things happen. You’re going to see prices go down and you’re going to see people become healthier because you have enabled them,” she said. “Until we introduce market pressures on healthcare we’re going to continue to get the same results, which is a bulky, expensive buffet system.”
Kolkhorst repeated a warning about healthcare that she has been giving for years.
“One day, if we don’t change course in our country, we’re all going to sit around and go man, we’ve got healthcare. We don’t have food, water, shelter, or anything, but we’ve got healthcare. That is where we are in this country and we must change that direction. It must change; I’m adamant about it,” she said.
The senators said tax revenues are down, largely due to the oil and gas declines, and that crafting the budget will be a challenge.
“The good news is that the economy of Texas is much more diversified than it had been during the last oil bust in the ’80s, so that’s the good news,” Huffman said. “The rest of the good news is that last session we didn’t spend all the money. A lot of the Democrats, and I don’t want to get too partisan here, wanted us to spend all the money but we left money on the table to the tune of about $4.3 billion. And so, it’s a good thing that we did because we’re going to need some of that money to meet the basic needs of the state.”
It was noted that Kolkhorst and Huffman are two of the five finance committee members, which puts Fort Bend County in a good position of influence.
“Between us as senators, we touch every aspect of policy and finance in the Senate, which I think bodes well for Fort Bend County, which I believe to be the most dynamic county in the state of Texas,” Kolkhorst said.
Kolkhorst said she will have an agenda going into the session but will do so with an open mind. Among other topics discussed at the chamber luncheon were transportation, property taxes, property rights, local governmental control and public health issues.
“Transparency. I have been big on transparency forever,” Kolkhorst said. “That’s transparency in healthcare, transparency in funding our government … if you give people ownership in their government you’re going to have a better government.”
One cause she has been championing is for more openness in the state’s eminent domain laws.
“You can now go online and see all the different entities that have eminent domain,” she said. “You would be amazed at the 9,000 entities in the state of Texas that have eminent domain.”
Noting that she was the daughter of a dentist, Kolkhorst said she will be pushing for reform in the dental industry.
“There is another battle cry that I have in my office and that is it’s time to quit killing children in dental chairs,” she said.
She said there is a silent epidemic of children, especially in urban areas, dying during visits to the dentist.
“I’m going to be unyielding in this next session about the quality and care especially about pediatric dentistry. The battle cry is, if you send your children back to get their teeth filled they should not die in the dental chair, and that is happening here in the state of Texas,” she said.