Monday, March 30, 2015

Affordable Care Act…leaving money on the table

Suppose you learned your neighbor had won $3.1 billion in the lottery, and yet refused to go turn in his ticket. Surely, you would think he had lost his senses. Our state leaders are currently doing the exact same thing by refusing to accept $3.1 billion from the federal government for the purpose of expanding Medical Care for Texans. Right-wingers are fond of saying—mistakenly--that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) creates a set of “death panels.”

The real death panels created by the current system are those politicians who stand shoulder to shoulder and refuse to accept the benefits of the Affordable Care Act while millions of Texans go without adequate health care. Failing to improve our current system of medical delivery will cause catastrophic medical expenses for countless families, untold suffering, and countless deaths in Texas alone. Our senior citizens and children will be among the most numerous victims.

Ninety-three percent of the cost of expanding Medicare for Texans would be borne by the federal government for the next nine years. For three years, 100% of those newly enrolled in Medicare would be supported 100% by federal funds. To accept this largesse from the federal program would cost our state a mere 2.8% increase in our budget for state-supported health care.

It is amazing that conservative politicians blindly continue to attack Obamacare while purporting to want to save taxpayers money. The fact is that failure to adopt the Affordable Care Act, employing the current system, or no system, costs local taxpayers in Texas $2.3 billion in increased costs because health care has been largely pushed off on local governments.

Because of political games and posturing of our ex-governor and others, Texans are being forced to pay not once but three times. First, currently, Texas taxpayers are contributing to federal taxes which are going to benefit other states. Second, we are paying for locally supported health care through our cities and counties. Third, we are paying the price of ever increasing insurance costs when we purchase our own health insurance.

There is approximately $20 billion a year that occurs in uncompensated health care--mostly occurring at emergency rooms--which ex-governor Perry says are the places that are furnishing adequate medical care to the uninsured in our state. The billions of dollars of costs of care at emergency rooms are not eaten by hospitals. They simply add it to their overall charges when you or I enter the hospital on our insurance carriers …or it comes out of our hip pocket. This is to say nothing of the fact that emergency room care may prevent your death for a moment, but does little or nothing if you have some chronic disease that could be easily treated at a fairly low cost with regular care at a health clinic supported by the Affordable Care Act. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently published an analysis of what happened in Massachusetts. A plan similar to the current Affordable Care Act was implemented several years ago in that state which has reduced the cost of health insurance immeasurably and has reduced the cost of uncompensated health care by approximately 38%. This would mean a savings in Texas by approximately $6 billion. Imagine what we could do with $6 billion. Our leadership’s claim of refunding us taxes to the tune of $200 a year pales in comparison to what could be saved by the effective use of the Affordable Care Act in Texas.

Most politicians who scream Obamacare is the biggest job killer devised by any Democrat in many years are simply not telling the truth. Business leaders throughout Texas have urged our leadership to accept the $3.1 billion that is there for the asking. It will mean expansion of medical facilities throughout this state, better care, and more higher paying jobs in Texas.

While America has the best technology, better trained physicians, and the capability of delivering the best medical care in the world, our delivery system is flawed. If you are neither wealthy nor fortunate enough to have employer paid health insurance, our current delivery system of health care could kill you or destroy you financially.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Blind Search

Do you remember the old joke about the guy who was observed by another combing the ground under the corner street light?  “What are you looking for?”  “I dropped my wallet up the street, and I’m searching for it,” replied the searcher.  “If you dropped it up the street, why are you looking here on the corner?”  “Because it’s dark down there and it’s lighter here.”

Our Legislature, as well as Congress, has spent billions of our tax dollars searching for something yet to be defined.  This is similar to the time of the Crusades when a great deal of effort was devoted to looking for the Holy Grail.  Even though there was great effort to find it, no one knew what it looked like.  Our Congress and Legislature are off on a similar quest before anyone has defined what quality education or securing the border look like.

Almost every politician who comments on it refers to the great need to secure our border before we do anything else.  To my knowledge, not a single politician has yet to tell us how we will know when the border is secure.  The Communists built a great wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin staffed by armed guards who would shoot to kill. And yet, it did not completely secure that border.  Our Lt. Governor’s budget for securing the border appears to be about 800 million dollars.  To me it seems foolish to spend that much money on something not yet defined when there are so many other needs of the state.  

It seems even worse when a good chunk of those tax dollars are being spent sending our state guardsmen to the border, most of whom don’t want to be there, and there is great debate about whether or not they are effective.  It has been pointed out more than once that state guard troops cannot even arrest anyone.  I, along with others, strongly suspect sending our state guard to the border has more to do with burnishing Rick Perry’s image as tough on immigration than it has to do with anything else.  Even the law enforcement officers along the border claim it is pretty much a waste and that the money could better be spent shoring up the local law enforcement or even increasing the number of Department of Public Safety troopers on the border.  

If we are to seek a secure border, it seems to me the politicians owe us taxpayers a definition of what is meant by a secure border.  Does it mean no illegal aliens can cross?  Only a few?  Half as many as have been crossing the border?  If securing the border were defined, at least we could make an informed judgment about whether or not our tax money is being well spent, and when we needed to increase it or decrease it.

Border security is not the only fruitless blind search being undertaken by Texas politicians.  How about the phrase “quality education”?  Everybody is for it. Nobody seems to know what it looks like.  I think the truth is that too many of our elected officials really do not want to engage in the exercise of trying to determine what quality education is.  There are too many, particularly in our Legislature, who still cling to the faint hope that some sort of gimmick or trick could deliver to us a constitutional and adequate public education in our state.  It also seems clear too many of our legislators fear that included in quality education would be adequate pay for teachers, less dependence on testing, and not diverting tax funds from public education to private schools.

Unfortunately, instead of sitting down and mapping out the road to quality education, many of our legislators want to engage in lectures about how it is the fault of parents, how we need merit pay for teachers, how we need better discipline, and how we need school choice.  These same folks appear to ignore the fact our public schools have had more and more responsibility heaped upon them with more and more students coming into the system and less and less financing made available for them.  

Perhaps what we really need is for those of us who vote to spend more time in defining good representatives of the people.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Women's Equal Rights

Of late, there has been much talk stemming from Congress, as well as our State Legislature, concerning women’s rights.  It is inconceivable to me that anyone could make a rational argument against paying females a lesser rate of pay for doing the same work that males are doing.  The arguments offered by politicians, mostly by so-called conservatives, really hold no water.  The argument against equal pay for equal work generally centers around a fear that such a law interferes with business decisions, dictates to business owners, and would bring about numerous lawsuits.

It seems some things remain pretty much the same no matter how long they are at the forefront of hot, political issues.

I recall in the early 1960's when I was a young member of the Texas Legislature, I was one of the prime sponsors of a proposed constitutional amendment known as the Equal Rights Amendment.  At that time, Texas was still in the dark ages with regard to married women.  Married women, according to our constitution, were classified in the same category as minors and mental incompetents.  A married women could not even sell her own property without the consent of her husband.  A married woman in the early 1960's in Texas could not sign a binding contract--even a contract having to do with her home.  The proposed constitutional amendment was supported by numerous women’s groups but was vigorously opposed by the conservatives in the Legislature.

Back then, during the fight over equal legal rights, arguments which were completely silly were offered in defense of maintaining the archaic provisions of our Texas constitution.  One I particularly recall was the argument that if we had equal legal rights, we could no longer have restrooms labeled men and women.  All of them would suddenly have to be labeled unisex.

After a long battle which lasted for two sessions of the Legislature, the amendment was finally submitted to the public and overwhelmingly passed.  Since that time, none of the terrible results predicted by the opponents have come to pass, and restrooms are still properly labeled.  I strongly suspect that should the Congress of the United States, or even Texas, pass a provision requiring equal pay for equal work that within six months few people, if anyone, would suffer any detrimental consequences--with the possible exception of some tightfisted business owners who have enjoyed a few pennies’ profit at the expense of our women citizens.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Making NO Deal is Better Than Making a BAD Deal

In the recently famous words of Prime Minister Netanyahu, “No deal is better than a bad deal.”  Unfortunately, our Legislature appears to be headed headlong into what I consider a bad deal for Texas.  Both our Governor and Lt. Governor made glorious campaign promises to cut taxes.  While it is a noble goal, the proposals currently being touted in Austin would be a bad deal for the future of Texas.  It would be like the head of a household, whose children are poorly clothed and poorly fed, taking a big portion of his income and donating it to his fraternity.  Even though his fraternity may do good works, and his donation gives him status and standing with his fraternity brothers, he’s not doing the right thing for the needs of his family.

Reportedly, the total tax savings to a median-income Texan would be about $200 a year.  Personally, I would gladly pay $200 a year to be assured my grandchildren would receive a first class education here in the Lone Star State.  Senator Eltife of Tyler was the sole Republican to vote against the recent appropriations bill which allegedly gives Texas homeowners a $200 a year tax break at a cost to the state of 4 billion dollars.  Senator Eltife correctly pointed out that we should first take care of the primary obligations of the state, the most important of which is restoring public education to an adequate level to prepare Texas students to be a part of a productive economy and workforce. 

School districts in Texas are now receiving about $500 less per student than they were 4 years ago.  If Texas, one of the fastest growing states in the nation, is to keep pace with a vibrant, growing economy, it is absolutely essential that we have a prepared, educated workforce--not necessarily all college graduates, but young people with a good grasp on the basic principles of math, science and the ability to effectively communicate.  Clearly, money alone is not the answer, but a quality education system cannot become a reality without adequate funding.

Not only this Legislature but also past Legislatures have given too much attention to smoke and mirror games to make it appear they are giving priority to the needs of the State along with trying to show they have prioritized their campaign promises.  Unfortunately, the smoke and mirrors do not mean progress in our state.  A good example is a current boast emanating from the Legislature that the people have been saved once again by legislation which will constitutionally prohibit a tax on real estate transactions.  What is not said is that Texas does not have, nor has it ever had, a tax on real estate transactions.  Many other states require a tax stamp indicating the value of the real estate transaction to be affixed to deeds when filed for record with the county filing agency.  I suppose, we, the taxpayers, are supposed to find great comfort in protection from a tax no one has proposed, nor has the Legislature ever seriously considered.  It reminds me of politicians in Texas who have been saving us from a state income tax which is constitutionally prohibited in our state.

It seems penny-wise and pound-foolish for our Legislature to jump through hoops to give the average homeowner a $200 a year break while our highways and bridges are crumbling, our state buildings are shamefully in need of repair, the cost of higher education is going out the ceiling, and Texas has more uninsured people needing health care than any state in the union. 

Scripture tells us that where the leaders have no vision the people perish.  I doubt seriously that mistakes of our Legislature will cause us to all perish. However, there is a real chance the quality of our future will be seriously diminished if our leaders do not use vision for the future in place of politics during this Session.

Monday, March 2, 2015

What Rick Perry Is Bragging About

Rick Perry, in his quest to become the next President of the United States, is boasting that Texas has been a leader in almost everything under his watch as Governor. Many of his boasts have been determined to be untrue at least in part or whole. For example, he claims Texas is responsible for 1/3rd of the entire job growth in the United States. A recent article published by the wire services has rated that one with two Pinocchios.

The big thing Rick is not telling is the financial shape he has left Texas in. While Rick and other right-wingers decry Democrats as drunken sailors taxing and spending, what Mr. Perry did was probably worse. He borrowed and spent. About the time Rick Perry took office as a Republican, our state was almost debt free. Unfortunately, in a recent local news publication called County Citizen, it is revealed that Texas leads all states in the nation in the rate of increase in state and local debt. Between 2007-2012, spending in our state has increased 18.2% while revenue on the no new tax policy of Perry and others is down 1.1%.

Between March, 2010, when Perry took office, until 2013, Texas’ state debt had more than doubled. Statistics from the Texas Bond Review Board, a state agency, show that from December, 2000, about the time Bush and Perry took control of our state, our state debt was approximately $13.7 billion. Today it is more than $34 billion. A huge chunk of this went on the Perry program of building toll roads instead of maintaining the highway system which once was the pride of America. In 2001, partially with Rick Perry’s leadership, Texans were convinced to authorize a bond issue allowing the state to issue bonds for highways. The reason a statewide constitutional amendment was necessary is that since about 1877 our state has had a constitutional provision to pay-as-you-go and not allow the state to become indebted.

Following Perry’s lead, however, we, the citizens of Texas, authorized an indebtedness which was supposedly to be paid back by the increase in Texas’ economy (no new taxes). Unfortunately, our conservative leadership in Austin has ignored the debt such that now a substantial portion of our annual budget is going simply to pay interest. 

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that Rick Perry created two or three slush funds and diverted tax money to them which mostly went to his political cronies and donors. Regrettably, a substantial number of the recipients of Perry’s Business Development Funds went broke. Many were awarded millions of dollars without proper investigation or vetting. And, at the same time, most of the beneficiaries of Perry’s slush funds happened to be large contributors to his campaigns.

A big part of Texas’ indebtedness is the indebtedness of local school districts, counties and cities. While local government bears its share of the blame for deficit spending, a large part is also attributable to the fact our state leadership and Legislature are so in love with the slogan of "no new taxes" that they continue to push more of the responsibility for government onto the cities, counties and school districts. Local governments have had to pick up the slack in education, health, law enforcement, streets and roads and many other areas formerly taken care of by our state government.

Still another thing Perry won’t boast about on his trip around the country, touting his leadership of Texas, is the way he claims to have maintained a balanced budget in Texas. It was often done by cuts in essential state services.  One of these examples is the $5 billion he cut from public education while maintaining more than that in the Rainy Day Fund. The Perry budgeting system has often been referred to as the method of smoke and mirrors. Very few people outside of Austin really understand what is meant by such tactics.

A prime example of smoke and mirrors occurred  during one budgeting session of the Legislature wherein funding for schools was delayed by a few days. In other words, the school districts did not get their money on time. This delay placed funding for public education outside the fiscal year for which budgeting was taking place--therefore, the several billion dollars allocated to public education did not count in the budget. This made it easier for the State Comptroller to certify that our budget was within the range of anticipated revenue. Such tactics make a mockery out of the spend-as-you-go mandate of our state’s constitution.

Borrowing like a man with a credit card for which he thinks there will be no tomorrow is offensive and detrimental to our state.

While Perry continues to try to polish his credentials as a true conservative and great leader, I can only hope some of his Republican primary opponents will tell the truth about him and what he did in our state–or to our state.


Recently the AARP, probably the largest advocacy group for senior citizens, declared Texas as having the worst nursing homes in the United States.  There are several reasons, most of which are strictly political.  The stubborn refusal of our leadership to accept the several billions of dollars offered by the federal government to provide adequate health care for our citizens is probably the biggest reason.  

In all probability, the second biggest reason our elderly in Texas are mistreated is simply that politicians are not taking the time to go take a firsthand look at how the elderly in Texas exist.  I confess I, too, have probably turned a blind eye too long to the plight of seniors in Texas.  Having a mother who recently turned 100 and dealing with her everyday problems has made me acutely aware of the sorry state of life for elderly Texans.  

If you have not visited a nursing home recently, you should.  If you or your parents live long enough, in all probability, one of you will end up in such an institution.  Most Americans--and particularly Texans--seldom have the resources to pay for first-class care and must rely on Medicaid to provide themselves with food, shelter and care in their declining years.  While some nursing home operators manage to eke out a profit, in most cases the nursing homes which rely on public assistance remain on the edge of bankruptcy. 

I doubt seriously if a majority of members of the State Legislature realize, for example, that our state does not even recognize Alzheimer’s as a disease.  Alzheimer patients do not generate any greater assistance when housed in a nursing home than someone who has simply grown old.  Unfortunately, Alzheimer patients require almost constant care which, in turn, requires a greater level of funding than for ordinary elderly patients.

At the other end of the life continuum, Texas children born into poverty suffer fates similar to our elderly.  A child advocacy group called Children At Risk recently reported that 1/4 of the children in Houston live in poverty.  Other studies have shown many poor children in Texas (in the thousands) go to bed hungry every night.  Again, the steadfast refusal of our Governor, Lt. Governor and legislative leadership to accept the benefits available under the Affordable Care Act forces Texas to remain the state with the most uninsured population.  

So-called tort reform protecting doctors, hospitals, clinics and any other medical provider with immunity from suit--no matter how egregious their misconduct--has also not produced the results promised.  Medical expenses are higher than when tort reform was passed, and the supply of doctors per thousand citizens in Texas has not improved greatly.  While our ex-governor was running for president and boasted about economic victories in Texas, he ignored the fact that health care for children in Texas ranks no better than fifth from the bottom.

I would like to believe all Texans have a conscience.  It is a fact that poor health care for children will lead to greater public expenditures in the long run.  If for no other reason than humanitarian empathy for children who are less fortunate, the facts about poor health care for children should drive us into a continuous  dialogue with our Legislature to do what is necessary to see that our children and grandparents do not suffer.