The current Texas legislative session started with high hopes for what our state lawmakers could achieve for kids. The Houston Chronicle, for example, urged state leaders to consider 2017 “the year of the child,” citing the momentum behind several children’s policy issues and the high stakes involved in those policy decisions.
There’s still a little time for state lawmakers to make real progress for kids before the legislative session ends on May 29, but as of today our state legislators are at great risk of falling short.
Strengthening Child Protective Services (CPS) is the one area where legislators are closest to succeeding for Texas kids, though several measures — both good and bad — still hang in the balance.
We’re grateful to budget writers for providing significant new funding to stabilize the CPS workforce, a critical step toward reducing staff turnover and ensuring caseworkers check on endangered kids in a more timely fashion. Key legislation to improve how the child welfare system operates — such as Senate Bill 11, House Bill 4, HB 6, HB 7, and HB 39 — is also making headway through the legislative process.
On the other hand, worrisome CPS legislation is also on the move. We know the bill authors are eager to find solutions to our foster care challenges. But kids will suffer if the Legislature passes bills to steer more children to group settings like “cottage homes” rather than foster families and to allow foster care providers to refuse children or adoptive families based on religion, sexual identity, or other factors.
We’re also concerned that the near-final budget for foster care does not provide the funding necessary to meet the growing demand for homes and therapeutic services for children with significant mental health and behavioral needs.
Like CPS, mental health policy was considered a priority as the Legislature came to town in January, but it appears that most of the progress this session will be limited to addressing the mental health needs of adults.
The Legislature failed to pass the bill with the greatest potential to address children’s mental health. The House scheduled a vote on the legislation, an omnibus student mental health bill, but didn’t get it before last week’s deadline to pass House bills. Lawmakers can still make some progress this session by salvaging pieces of the legislation and pushing ahead with House-passed bills to expand access to postpartum depression screening and reduce suspensions for kids as young as pre-K.
There are some worrisome signs for kids in the state budget, though there’s still a little time for legislators to get those decisions right.
As House and Senate negotiators finalize the budget, one issue to watch closely is services for kids with disabilities and developmental delays. After nearly two years of pleas from parents of children with cerebral palsy, autism, and other disabilities, the House recently voted to partially reverse the 2015 Medicaid therapy cuts, while the Senate left the misguided cuts in place. So far, the House and Senate budget plans also leave out the additional Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) funding required to support babies and toddlers with disabilities and delays. The need for adequate Medicaid therapy funding and ECI appropriations was underscored when Easter Seals of East Texas recently announced it can no longer provide ECI services due to state budget cuts.
There are also concerns that the Legislature’s budget decisions could trigger similar but deeper health care cuts down the road, especially for the children, people with disabilities, and pregnant women enrolled in Medicaid. The proposed two-year state budget would set up the state’s Medicaid program to run out of money during the final months of the next biennium. Legislators will have a hard time addressing that intentional shortfall in two years if they go forward with plans to phase out the state’s business tax without a plan to replace the funding it provides for schools and health care.
Additionally, the fate of quality pre-K still hangs in the balance as both House and Senate budgets fall short of maintaining the $118 million annual investment in the grant program legislators established last session.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have actively blocked bills to support Texas kids.
On Friday, as House members were getting ready to head home for Mother's Day weekend, they had a chance to take two modest but important steps to address the state's heartbreaking rate of pregnancy-related maternal deaths. Instead, a contingent of lawmakers torpedoed one bill to study the disproportionate number of deaths of black mothers and another to improve prenatal care for pregnant mothers.
In one glaring example, the House passed important “raise the age” legislation last month to send 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system, rather than the adult system, when they get in trouble. House members from all political factions gave impassioned speeches about how the bill improves public safety, maintains the option to certify teens as adults, keeps youth safe and gives them a better chance of growing up to get a job. Yet the Senate has not held a hearing on the House bill or Senate bill.
There’s still a little time for lawmakers to make this a successful legislative session for kids. Texans are watching to see if they do.