Tue March 3, 2015 4:18 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Fat is not where it’s at, according Dr. David Lakey, who recently stepped down as the state health commissioner. Lakey told the House Public Health Committee today that diabetes from obesity currently is costing the state economy $9 billion a year, but he predicted that will grow to $30 billion by 2030.

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Tue March 3, 2015 10:09 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

State expenditures adjusted for inflation and population growth

Texans historically are misers when it comes to state spending. They applauded Governor William “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” Lee O’Daniel in 1939 when he vetoed funding to build new state hospitals and asylums for the insane and slashed the public safety budget in half, a cut so deep that Texas Rangers had to borrow bullets from the highway patrol. Little wonder that the past decade of budget and tax cuts have caused scarce consternation among the populace.

A Republican legislator once told me he opposed tax increases in times of revenue shortfalls because once the tax increase was in place it did not go away, even when the economy rebounded to restore funding for state programs. That certainly was the approach in the 2011 session as lawmakers dealt with a major shortfall, but now that times are flush again, Governor Greg Abbott has asked state agencies to cut their budgets by 10 percent while Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and the Senate are pressing for public school property tax cuts that will have to be made up from state funding.

What has been established since 2003 is a cycle of ratcheting state government down in staffing and services. Small-government conservatives are sure to welcome, but it also has set up a cycle of penny-wise, pound-foolish governing. The cost of this frugality may run into the billions of dollars.

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Tue March 3, 2015 7:37 am By Paul Burka

It is with considerable sadness that I received the news of the death of Robert Landis Armstrong, a former commissioner of the General Land Office, who was a major force in bringing about the addition of Big Bend Ranch State Park to the Texas Parks & Wildlife System. (TEXAS MONTHLY was an early champion of the  effort to make Big Bend Ranch part of the state park system.)  As my colleague R.G. Ratcliffe noted yesterday, Armstrong was a widely liked and respected Democratic legislator from Austin, who would qualify as a gentle giant. He gained local fame by having the queso dip at Matt’s El Rancho Restaurant named for him. I knew him very well, as he occupied an office not far from the space where I began my tenure in the Capitol.

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Mon March 2, 2015 9:15 pm By Erica Grieder

On Friday evening, Dan Patrick’s office sent an announcement: on March 2nd the lieutenant governor, along with Senator Charles Schwertner and “other senators”, would hold a press conference on the subject of Medicaid flexibility. The topic was an intriguing one. Texas, of course, is one of the states that has declined to expand Medicaid under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Efforts to consider the subject, in 2013, were unceremoniously squashed, and nothing has happened in the interim that would make Texas more receptive to the federal government’s preferences. Schwertner, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services committee, dismissed the idea bluntly months ago: “expanding Medicaid in its current form is a nonstarter for Texas.” Plus the date, March 2nd, was a dead giveaway.

The press conference confirmed the Senate’s position: Texas will not expand Medicaid in its current form. The idea of doing so, Schwertner added, “is simply not worth discussing.” And if the president doesn’t like that, apparently, it’s incumbent on him to be flexible. Patrick and Schwertner produced a letter to Barack Obama, signed by all 20 Senate Republicans, laying out their list of demands. They want the federal government to give Texas the latitude to implement ten reforms (“at minimum”) in the current Medicaid program, then, and only then, Texas would come back to the table—maybe.

It was an aggressive approach, considering that the Texas Senate can’t force the federal government to accept its conditions; but a defensible one.

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Mon March 2, 2015 4:42 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Photo by Bob DaemmerichFormer Texas Land Commissioner Robert Landis “Bob” Armstrong, whose efforts resulted in the creation of Big Bend State Park, died Sunday at the age of 82.

Armstrong was a leader of the progressive Democrats of Austin who came into their own in the 1970s amid a conservative one-party Democratic state and held sway through the end of Governor Ann Richard’s tenure in 1995. Theirs was the kind of liberalism dreamed about in Billy Brammer’s The Gay Place.

A seven-year member of the Texas House, Armstrong first won election as state land commissioner in 1970 and served until he made an unsuccessful run for governor in the 1982 Democratic primary, losing to then-Attorney General Mark White.

As land commissioner, Armstrong took charge of land management for Permanent School Fund lands and served as the chairman of the Board for Lease of the Permanent University Fund. When he took office, the school fund had produced less than $1 billion in income, but during his tenure, the fund grew by $2 billion. He also oversaw increases in royalty payments to the university fund and fended off federal attempts to collect $300 million in windfall profits tax on university lands.

Armstrong received an appointment to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1985, where he completed 17 years of work with the state’s purchase of 212,000 acres of West Texas land to create Big Bend State Park. That single acquisition doubled the amount of park land owned by the state.

For many of the old-school Democrats, one of the highlights of the year was the annual picnic at Armstrong’s ranch north of Liberty Hill. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said this year’s event was set for this past weekend but was postponed because of the weather. Watson said Armstrong on Friday talked about resetting the event for this upcoming weekend.

The Texas Senate adjourned Monday in Armstrong’s honor.

(Bob Armstrong/Photo by Bob Daemmrich)