State workers demand better cure for budget

Hundreds protest threats of cuts in jobs and benefits

By Cari Hammerstrom
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, April 10, 2003

Beatriz Sorola, an 11-year employee with the state Department of Human Services, is "ill." She suffers from depression caused by broken promises of a pay raise and from fatigue caused by doing the job of five employees.

Because Sorola's sickness is highly contagious, many other state employees have been infected.

The hope is that there is a cure. It needs only to be approved by the Legislature.

State and union workers lobbied and rallied Wednesday for the cure: a solution to Texas' budget crisis without cutting state jobs, health care or services.

Members of the Texas State Employees Union, the local Communication Workers of America chapter, the Texas AFL-CIO and other groups cheered for affordable health care and denounced the proposed privatization of their jobs during a rally at the Stephen F. Austin state office building. They waved signs that read "Jobs with Justice" and "State Services Down to the Bone."

Judy Lugo, president of the state employees' union, outlined money-savers that would leave untouched money for parole supervision, the Children's Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, child support enforcement, university jobs and mental health facilities.

Use the rainy day fund, modify current taxes and close tax loopholes, she told a cheering crowd that Capitol police estimated at 500.

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos left the Senate while it was in session to speak frankly to the union members.

"This is the toughest session that I've ever been in," the Austin Democrat said. "Many programs are in limbo, and some pretty horrible suggestions for saving money are out there. . . . I am holding out that some revenue-generating ideas will be put forth . . . to alleviate some of the pressure that you are feeling right now."

Barrientos said state employee turnover will cost twice as much as a raise and acknowledged the crowd as "overlooked and underpaid."

Sorola agreed. She said she handles high case loads, and her department does not have enough workers. She does not want the state to cut jobs, but she does want better pay and no increases to her health insurance premiums and co- payments.

"They promised us a pay raise and didn't give it to us. They're planning to raise our health insurance. We're going to pay more and get less," she said.

chammerstrom@statesman.com; 445-3639