Overhaul of Texas CPS, Foster Care Wins More Dollars in Senate, House Budgets

AUSTIN -- A Senate panel tentatively approved a two-year state budget Thursday that would take big steps toward satisfying a federal judge critical of Texas' management of foster children.The Senate's emerging budget would add 382 slots for new Child Protective Services "conservatorship caseworkers," who track foster children, and expand a new model for procuring beds and therapies for the often-traumatized youngsters to four new regions.Three hours later, a House budget panel tentatively passed its version of the budget, which would permit CPS to hire 728 conservatorship workers -- nearly twice as many as the Senate's spending blueprint contemplates.The House plan, though, would roll out "foster care redesign" procurement to fewer new areas - just two, in addition to the two where it's now being tried.Ironically, the two chambers' budget writers rushed out their decisions on the same day U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack hailed CPS officials into court in Corpus Christi. From state protective services officials and her appointed special masters, Jack heard a report on what they are doing to improve foster children's safety and well-being.In Austin, meanwhile, there was unusual spectacle.Goaded by Speaker Joe Straus, who has gigged the Senate for tardy action on the budget, the Senate Finance Committee finished marking up and sent to the printer its bill - even as the House Appropriations Committee rushed to do the same.Throwing elbowsTraditionally, the chambers alternate going first, as the House did last session. But Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are at such loggerheads, many legislative customs may hit the trash bin by the time lawmakers adjourn May 29.The two leaders are jousting over whether to dip into state savings to ease the severity of spending cuts in the 2018-2019 budget. The House wants to lessen the pain by drawing down about $2.5 billion of nearly $12 billion in available rainy-day dollars. It would do so in an emergency or "supplemental" spending bill.On Thursday, Appropriations folded border-security spending into the supplemental bill, to heighten the chamber's case for tapping savings. The House panel then sat on the bill, giving Straus more time to ease House GOP conservatives' demands that, before they vote on using the rainy day fund, they be allowed to cast votes popular with their party's base voters on items such as a ban on "sanctuary cities."Patrick has criticized the House's starting-point budget for overshooting Comptroller Glenn Hegar's revenue estimate - and being a possible stalking horse for higher taxes.Straus has disowned any such intent. The San Antonio Republican has said he merely wants a budget that protects education and abused and neglected children, and does more for the mentally ill.Senate prioritiesSen. Jane Nelson, the Senate's chief budget writer, said her chamber's spending plan would shield public schools from cuts - one of its prime objectives - as well as help the beleaguered CPS agency and foster care.But the Senate budget continues to alarm many state university officials and defenders of Medicaid, the state-federal safety net health program for the poor. It cuts higher education more deeply than the House. And even though senators put nearly $1.7 billion of state funds into Medicaid on Thursday, they're still $300 million short of where the House is. As is the Legislature's habit, neither the House nor the Senate has added dollars to cover expected medical inflation. The program covers more than 4 million Texans."We're not through yet," Nelson said, speaking of Medicaid.She said senators set two priorities - and held fast to both."This Finance Committee's No. 1 commitment was to Child Protective Services," the Flower Mound Republican told reporters. "The other was education. I mean, we drew the line in the sand and said we are not reducing Foundation School Program money at all. ... We had to make a lot of really tough decisions to come up with those two items."CPS and foster careUnder both chambers' approaches, the Legislature would be committing at least $200 million more to CPS so it could hire more conservatorship workers, mainly, and improve foster care capacity. The $271 million of new money, counting federal funds, in the House budget and the $203 million added by the Senate panel would come on top of paying for two more years of emergency moves made by state GOP leaders in December.In the next cycle, it will cost $352 million to cover significant pay raises granted to more than 6,000 CPS employees and pay for 829 new hires.Neither Senate nor House budget writers funded a much-discussed CPS proposal to begin making monthly payments to so-called "kinship caregivers" -- grandmothers, uncles, aunts and close family friends who agree to take in abused and neglected children.Both budget committees' plans, though, would spend $94 million, including federal funds, to increase payments to "legacy system" providers of foster care. Those are child placing agencies, residential treatment centers and emergency shelters located outside of the Fort Worth and Abilene regions, where the new redesign procurement method is being tested.The House budget would grant December's $12,000 pay raises to 321 additional front-line CPS workers. Senate Finance added that to its wish list.To reduce caller hold times, House Appropriations also added money to hire 53 new "intake specialists" at the state's hotline for reporting abuse of youngsters and the elderly. Senators rebuffed that request from the Department of Family and Protective Services.Lead Senate CPS budget writer Sen. Charles Schwertner, though, gave department chief Henry "Hank" Whitman 9 of the 36 "information analysts" he wanted. The analysts help child-abuse investigators locate families that are fleeing CPS' detection. And though the House panel did not, Schwertner's work group provided 11 new employees and $11.1 million of equipment to improve sharing of confidential data in CPS' computer system with foster care providers.  Continue reading...

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