PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

February 27, 2013

Budget cuts come close to home

Brooke Crum
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — The budget battle that wages on in Washington is not so far away.

Those cuts will curtail some of the services many folks in Port Arthur rely on regularly, such as health care and public housing. Judith Smith, acting director of the Port Arthur Health Department, said she was unsure of the exact effect of the cuts but knew they would not go unnoticed.

The Health Department receives federal funding to perform immunizations, serving 19,575 patients through that program, Smith said.

The department also serves 57,465 patients through the Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children program, she said. That program would lose $31.8 million and discontinue aid to 82,500 people statewide if the automatic budget cuts take effect Friday as expected.

The health department in Port Arthur conducts approximately 2,100 HIV tests a year, as well, sending blood samples to the state labs in Austin for results, Smith said.

Texas health departments would lose about $1.15 million, which would result in around 28,600 fewer HIV tests, according to WhiteHouse.gov.

Meanwhile, the Port Arthur Housing Authority will reduce its services to the public by about 6 percent, said Seledonio “Cele” Quesada, executive director.

PAHA currently assists approximately 3,000 families through its public housing units and Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, according to its five-year plan.

“We’re not going to be able to help as many families,” he said.

PAHA will cut its administrative costs by 31 percent, as well, Quesada said.

While the budget cuts were not small, the director believed the authority could absorb the losses because it has been working with less and less funds for the past few years. If the cuts become permanent, PAHA may have to lay off some employees.

“We are hoping and praying there will be a resolution so we can continue to do the work that we do,” Quesada said.

The Texas state budget will lose $334 million due to the budget battle in Washington, mostly in cuts to public education programs, according to an analysis presented to lawmakers Monday.

Multiple messages left for Mark Porterie, Port Arthur ISD Deputy Superintendent, were not returned by time of publication.

The Texas Education Agency will lose $167.7 million and the four agencies under the Health and Human Services Commission will lose another $104.9 million, said Maria Hernandez, an expert on federal funds at the Legislative Budget Board.

More than $67 million given to at least 285 schools under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be cut, affecting more than 172,000 students and 1,300 staff, said Cory Green, the chief grants administrator for the Texas Education Agency. The Department of Education cuts will not take effect until July 1, so schools will not feel the impact until then, Green said.

In addition to the funding for regular classes, the automatic budget cuts would reduce spending on special education by $50 million, affecting 20,000 students and up to 900 staff members. Programs for English language learners also would be reduced by $5.2 million, and technical education courses will lose $4.5 million.

Nutrition programs, early child intervention for disabilities and family protective services also will see reductions in funding, said David Kinsey, an official with the Health and Human Services Commission.

Republican lawmakers pressed agency officials on whether the cuts would result in real reductions in the number of people served, or if the figures presented were intended to frighten lawmakers. Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, said he would be watching closely to make sure administrative costs are cut as much as services.

He said the federal government needs to reduce its spending and the cuts are not that significant.

“Out of $32 billion in federal funds, we’re only talking about $334 million, so let’s keep a frame of mind and a reference of what we’re really talking about here,” he said.

Hernandez added that while the impact of automatic budget cuts was limited on the state’s budget, numerous other programs that fund Texas programs also will see cuts. Those include cuts to higher education grants from the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation, as well as cuts to locally administered programs such as Head Start, Community Development Block Grants and the Public Housing Capital Fund.

Cuts in defense programs and defense spending also will hurt the Texas economy, which relies heavily on those sectors, she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

email: bcrum@panews.com

twitter: @broocrum