Despite budgetary battles over issues from water to roads to education, Republicans and Democrats in Texas agree on at least one thing — the imperative to spend more money on mental health care.
Following devastating budget cuts a decade ago, Texas ranked last in the nation for spending on mental health care from 2006 to 2009, spending in fiscal year 2010 just $39 per capita. In contrast, top spending states such as Maine spent nearly 10 times as much, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
However, Texas is now allocating hundreds of millions of dollars more to fund services to prevent residents with mental illnesses from landing in state hospitals and county jails, the streets, or the morgue.
In San Antonio, Haven for Hope is a 20-acre site providing services and shelter for people who are homeless or marginally so. The Bexar County facility works with a network of dozens of government agencies, non-profit groups, and religious charities, to provide help for people who were formerly on their own.
"It is a place of hope and new beginnings," said Evita Morin, a former social worker who is now Haven's assistant vice president for community and external affairs.
Following recent high-profile mass shootings in the U.S., lawmakers agree in bipartisan fashion that mental health care spending saves money by preventing trouble later down the line. "One thing we could all agree on was mental health was, to a large extent, a driver of crime," state Rep. John Zerwas, Republican of Richmond, told the media.
In recent years, mental health experts beseeched lawmakers to spend on services to help those with serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. A consortium of sheriffs from across the state asked legislators in 2011 to fund local services to help keep such people out of the corrections system. With a dearth of funding for mental health care, the county jail inevitably became the de facto county mental health system, only less effective. Houston's Harris County Jail, for example, requires psychotropic medication for 2,000 inmates every day, according to Sheriff Adrian Garcia.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican from Southside Place, is a former prosecutor and criminal court judge, who says the legislature realized this year they'd reached a crisis point. "At some point it's really inexcusable," she said, "and you have to do something about it."
Such bipartisan bonhomie may not be too difficult this year, given the state's dramatic fiscal turnaround from a shortfall of some $27 billion in 2011 to an estimated budget surplus now of $12 billion. Lawmakers recently agreed to increase spending by $259 million, for a total of $1.77 billion for mental health care in the biennial budget.