Mary Faithfull, Executive Director
Greetings! Welcome to the first edition of Director’s Update, a quarterly overview of select agency activities and events.
The first half of the year proved to be a time of great transition. In addition to changing our name from Advocacy Inc. to Disability Rights Texas in March, we restructured our regional work groups into issue-specific teams to improve client supports and services. Throughout this time, we also remained steadfastly focused on activities at the Capitol.
The 82nd Legislative Session proved to be a difficult one for organizations advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. Facing a $27 billion shortfall, legislators cut billions of dollars from public schools and critical state programs in lieu of raising taxes or dipping into the $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund.
As expected, Texas’ public schools budget was drastically slashed. Approximately $4 billion in cuts were made to school district formula funding, as well as $1.4 billion in cuts to discretionary grants. Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) was hit particularly hard, with funding provided for only two hours a month of ECI per child. Previously, ECI had served 32,245 children per month; that number will now drop to 27,784.
Medicaid funding, which makes up roughly one-fourth of the state budget, was under intense scrutiny by budget-conscious lawmakers. Numerous bills were proposed that offered “cost efficiency measures,” which translated into significant reductions in and dollar caps on certain Medicaid benefits, including specialized therapies and other in-home supports. The end result will be fewer services and less comprehensive benefits for children and adults across the state.
Disability rights advocates supported legislation that abolished both the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and replaced their functions with the newly created Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which will provide a full continuum of services and prioritize community- and family-based programs over commitment to a secure facility.
Due to the significant failure of Texas’ state supported living centers (SSLCs) to comply with the DOJ settlement agreement, many advocates aspired to see at least one of the 13 SSLCs defunded during the legislative session. Although these facilities have a long history of abuse, neglect and exploitation, no SSLCs were marked for closure. Further, no additional money was allocated for new Medicaid waiver slots so that the thousands of Texans on waiting lists for community placements could be served.
Voter identification also was a hot topic during the session. From among more than a dozen bills, legislators eventually passed a bill that included a provision to exempt Texans with disabilities who do not have approved photo identification and who receive SSI, SSDI or veterans benefits on the basis of a disability. Voters who meet the requirement for exemption will be issued a special voter registration card.
Another positive outcome was passage of the Respectful Language bill, calling for “people first” language. Signed into law this summer, the bill replaces terms such as disabled, mentally ill, mentally retarded, handicapped and crippled with the preferred phrases persons with disabilities, persons with mental illness and persons with intellectual disabilities.
Obviously, the program changes and funding cuts stemming from the legislative session will significantly affect a wide range of Texans with disabilities. Stay tuned for more information about how these cuts will impact services across the state.
For a more detailed summary of activities from the 82nd Legislative Session, visit the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities website.