Legislature must work prudently for health of all Texans

One of the Texas Legislature's greatest responsibilities is developing and passing a budget each session that determines how taxpayer dollars will be spent for the following two years. We must ensure that taxpayer money is spent as efficiently as possible and demand accountability from state agencies for each dollar that the Legislature appropriates. The Legislature must also ensure that the state adequately funds our priorities while at the same time working to prevent the unnecessary additional burden to the taxpayer by way of increased local property taxes.

The state's health and human services system is responsible for the health care of millions of Texans that comprise a variety of vulnerable populations, including children with intellectual and development disabilities, children in the foster care system, children and adults living with serious mental illness and persons living with chronic disease. With six years of experience as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Health and Human Services, and through my current service on the Legislative Budget Board, I remain confident that the state can continue to transform the way the state spends its money in a system challenged by its size and responsibilities.

Budget reductions alone are a blunt tool that, in isolation without policy change, are likely to result in unintended consequences that can negatively impact vulnerable populations. Although the state should continue to make every effort to contain costs, we should also seek ways to foster policy innovations that allow the state to exercise flexibility. With the upcoming change in the federal administration, it seems that the state should have more opportunities than ever to request the ability to spend Medicaid funding in ways that will make our state's health care system better for those it serves, health care providers, and taxpayers alike.

The discussions on how to manage the state's budget challenges are well underway, and I will diligently work next session to preserve and — when necessary and prudent — find ways to increase funding for our state's Child Protective Services system. While the state has invested millions of dollars into CPS over the last several years, it is clear that the system's workers have been fundamentally understaffed and underpaid. Along with additional funding support, it is imperative that the Legislature consider policies that increase caseworker retention, increase positive outcomes through prevention and early intervention, and that increase capacity for children in the foster care system.

Similarly, the state must continue its commitment to appropriately fund mental and behavioral health needs. Funding these programs directly impacts multiple state agencies across the board; inadequate funding leads to increased costs elsewhere, particularly at the local level for hospitals and jail systems. The state should continue to invest in proven methods that not only lead to better patient outcomes but that prevent duplication of efforts and spending.

I am grateful to serve in a Legislature that treats taxpayer dollars with respect through conservative spending. I am also proud to serve in the Texas House of Representatives, under a leadership that seeks to understand our state's problems and that offers commitment to sound policies that will keep Texas moving forward. The legislative session that begins in January 2017 will not be without challenges, but I remain optimistic that much can and will be accomplished.

John Zerwas

State representative, R-Richmond