Posted: Mar 8, 2013 5:11 PM
Updated: Mar 8, 2013 5:11 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Texas Republicans have made it clear they hate the idea of expanding health care for the poor under the Affordable Care Act, but a key leader pledged Friday to work on a state alternative to accomplish the same goal and bring in the same federal matching funds.
House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts said lawmakers from several committees will work together to try to come up with a home-grown solution to providing more poor people with health care. A Gallup poll released Friday showed 28.8 percent of Texans lacked health insurance in 2012, which Gallup called the highest rate in the nation and highest ever recorded in the United States.
"I think we owe Texans an obligation to discuss this plan during the legislative session and get something done this legislative session," Pitts said in the most unequivocal statement yet on expanding Medicaid.
Lawmakers heard three hours of testimony about how Texas could provide 1 million people with health care coverage and better reimburse doctors by spending $18 billion and earning $100 billion in federal matching funds over 10 years. State officials, hospital representatives and county leaders said the state might even save enough money at the local level to cover its $18 billion investment.
Billy Hamilton, a former state revenue estimator who now works as an economic consultant for Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, said counties and hospital districts spend $2.5 billion a year on indigent health care, and private hospitals provide $1.8 billion a year in charity care. Expanded Medicaid would reduce much of those costs, he said.
"I don't really think you're going to see a more overwhelming fiscal opportunity" than Medicaid expansion, he said.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said expanded health care coverage would allow him to lower county and hospital district taxes. He said the mentally ill also would gain coverage, reducing the likelihood they end up in the county jail.
"If we can get behavioral services for those people outside of our jails ... that's a much better way of doing it," he said.
The only person to speak against expanding health care coverage was John Davidson, a policy analyst with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. He said expanding the number of people who rely on government-funded health care means ever-growing costs for taxpayers.
"We believe Medicaid spending is on an unsustainable trajectory," he said.
SENATOR FILES MUCH-ANTICIPATED SCHOLARSHIP BILL
The head of the Texas Senate Education Committee on Friday filed a highly anticipated bill offering businesses tax credits for donations that help poor and at-risk children leave public schools for private ones.
Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick has spent months clamoring for expanding "school choice" but waited until the last day of the legislative session to file bills formally offering his proposal.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who oversees the flow of legislation in the state Senate, assigned it SB 23, a low enough number that debating the measure will be a priority before the Legislature adjourns in May. It is likely to face stiff, bipartisan opposition.
Co-sponsored with fellow tea party favorite Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, Patrick's plan allows firms to get up to a 15 percent credit on state business or franchise taxes for donating to nonprofits that provide funding so low-income and at-risk children can leave traditional schools for private and religious alternatives.
"Several hundred-thousand students are stuck in low-performing schools today," Patrick said in a statement. "This should not be acceptable to anyone."
Patrick calls himself an "education evangelist," and says that while wealthy families can afford to move so their kids attend strong public schools, low-income students are "held hostage by their Zip codes."
But defenders of traditional schools dismiss the plan as a new wrinkle on long controversial voucher systems that funnel money away from already cash-strapped traditional public schools.
The Coalition for Public Schools said the bill and other educational proposals championed by some conservative lawmakers show "our public schools are under attack."
"It is appalling to see such legislation filed that would create a corporate tax loophole and voucher scholarships to divert critical dollars into an experimental voucher program to subsidize private education," the umbrella group of religious, child advocacy and education organizations said in a statement.
SPACEX'S MUSK 'OPTIMISTIC' ABOUT TEXAS SPACEPORT
SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk swung by the Texas Capitol on Friday and told lawmakers he could announce this year that the state will be home to his next ballyhooed spaceport if the price is right.
Bringing rare celebrity wattage to typically dry House Appropriations Committee hearings where the state budget is hashed out, Musk expressed optimism about Texas' chances of beating out Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico for what he says will be "a commercial version of Cape Canaveral."
Musk, who was in Austin to speak at the South by Southwest festival and promote his Tesla electric cars, said the winner hinges on which state puts together the best offer. He hinted at competitors offering generous economic incentives yet stopped short of revealing figures.
He often spoke, however, as though Texas was the preference. California-based SpaceX already launches unmanned rockets from a launch pad in Florida but Musk said there is an inherent appeal to expanding elsewhere.
Musk said his new spaceport will be the world's first commercial orbital launch site.
"All things being equal, I think it's better to have more than one location and have them be geographically separate," Musk said. "But on the other hand, if the economics are so compelling in Florida, that has to be considered."
Whatever offer the state puts on the table for SpaceX is likely to include taxpayer money from Gov. Rick Perry's deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund, which has been used to sway corporate heavyweights like Apple to expand in the state.
Ironically, after Musk finished testifying and was followed into the hall by admirers wanting pictures with the PayPal co-founder, lawmakers in the freshly empty committee room took managers of the Texas Enterprise Fund to task over transparency and questioned restocking it with more money.
SpaceX already has roots in Texas, building rockets at a facility near Waco. The proposed launch site would be just outside Brownsville near the U.S.-Mexico border. The Federal Aviation Administration is still conducting an environmental impact statement on the proposed site.
Musk said the company hopes to make a decision on where to build the site this year. SpaceX is already buying land near Brownsville.
"We're talking about something that is really the big leagues here," Musk said.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to keep the International Space Station well stocked. The contract calls for 12 supply runs, including one that launched earlier this month.
SpaceX, or more formally Space Exploration Technologies Corp., leads the commercial pack that is working toward launching astronauts in another few years. Musk said he can have people flying on a modified Dragon by 2015.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"There are 27 other states that have come up with a plan. The state of Arkansas, my goodness. Y'all are driving me nuts. The state of Arkansas has come up with a plan! This is not funny." Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, on the lack of a firm alternative plan to expand Medicaid in Texas.