Just before extinguishing Kinky Friedman’s political cigar in the Democratic primary for agriculture commissioner, Hank Gilbert lit into his November opponent, incumbent Republican Todd Staples.
In a March 1 news release, Gilbert accused Staples of using some of the state’s most vulnerable residents for political purposes. "Todd Staples recently tried to woo his supporters and right-wing base by suggesting the agriculture commission cut programs intended to feed the elderly and disabled, many of whom are veterans," the release said.
We wondered what Gilbert was talking about.
Gilbert’s campaign told us that he was referring to the Texas Department of Agriculture’s response to a request from Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus that state agencies submit plans for cutting 5 percent of their general revenue budgets. Experts say lawmakers could face a shortfall of $11 billion or more in projected revenue when they gather again in 2011.
In their Jan. 15 letter to the agencies, the leaders said "reducing direct services should be your last option, but should be identified, if necessary, in order to meet the 5 percent target." Decisions on the agencies’ proposals are expected within six weeks.
The Agriculture Department’s proposal, submitted Feb. 15, listed $7.2 million in possible cuts, the largest a $2 million reduction to a program that gives grants to organizations that serve meals — a direct service — to homebound Texans who are elderly or disabled. The cuts would reduce the program’s grant money for 2010 and 2011 by 10 percent.
"Reduced funding would likely impact the number of meals served to elderly and disabled Texans by eligible organizations," the department’s plan states. Bryan Black, a department spokesman, said the agency does not know exactly what the impact would be because recipients of grants — 192 were awarded for 2010 — can use the money for things besides food, including salary, equipment and transportation costs.
We also wondered if Gilbert is correct that "many" of the recipients of the meal aid are veterans.
The Gilbert campaign said it did not have figures to support the veterans reference. Black said the Agriculture Department doesn’t track whether veterans are among meal recipients.
However, a spokeswoman for Meals on Wheels and More, an Austin recipient of the grant money, told us that about 30 percent of the organization’s clients are men, and a "significant" share of those are Vietnam and World War II veterans. Dan Pruett, president of the local Meals on Wheels, said the grant money from the Agriculture Department had improved the group’s ability to serve the older population.
Finally, there’s Gilbert’s statement that the food delivery grants were targeted because Staples was trying to appeal to his "right-wing" base.
That’s the sort of speculative political claim that our fact-checking team doesn’t usually address, but we were curious about Gilbert’s reasoning. An explanation came from Vince Leibowitz, a spokesman for the Gilbert campaign, who said Staples’ action signals to conservatives that he’s willing to trim what they consider to be frivolous social programs.
Black said that proposed reductions to state-funded grant programs were made equitably and that none was singled out for larger cuts.
Summing up: Gilbert accurately described part of the Agriculture Department’s budget-cutting proposal. But it’s misleading to suggest that the food program was targeted for reduction. Nor did Gilbert present any evidence that Staples suggested the cuts to pander to his right-wing supporters.
We rate his statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
Hank Gilbert for Agriculture Commissioner, news release, March 1, 2010
Texas Department of Agriculture, 5% Reduction Plan, Feb. 15, 2010
State of Texas, letter to agencies asking for 5 percent reduction proposals, Jan. 15, 2010
Interview with Vince Leibowitz, spokesman, Hank Gilbert for Agriculture Commissioner, March 4, 2010
Interview with Sarah Andrews, communications manager, Meals on Wheels and More, March 4, 2010
Interview with Dan Pruett, president, Meals on Wheels and More, March 4, 2010
Interview with Bryan Black, spokesman, Texas Department of Agriculture, March 4, 2010
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