According to Friday's directive, the only exceptions listed in the letter are for school funding, for debt service on bonds, to "maintain benefits and eligibility in Medicaid" programs, the Children's Health Insurance Program and foster care programs , to maintain health and human services eligibility staffing and to keep the state pension and benefits programs properly funded.
That list does not include public safety and prison budgets that earlier got a partial exemption from the 5 percent cuts.
This was easy to see coming: If the state must actually cut $15-18 billion, there's no way cutting corrections costs can be taken off the table, with apologies to Sen. John Whitmire who advocates otherwise.
I actually believe it's possible to cut TDCJ's budget substantially - probably by more than 10% in the near term - if the 82nd Legislature enacts policy changes that reduce the prison population and allow closure of several of Texas' more expensive prison units. However, the cuts suggested by TDCJ when the state leadership previously asked for them are unrealistic and highly politicized, cutting things that would harm public safety and generally make no sense. I agree fully with Sen. Whitmire that those cuts should be rejected. But here's how I think the Texas Lege could substantially cut costs at TDCJ:
- Finish the 2007 probation reforms
- Ratchet down drug penalties one level
- Ramp up diversion and community supervision funding
- Close older, more expensive units and allow several private contracts to lapse
Instead, TDCJ has suggested slashing diversion funding, cutting health care to levels that would bring down federal litigation, reducing the number of guards without reducing the number of inmates, and has refusedto consider prison closures even though operating the agency's 112 units takes up 80+% of its budget.
IMO that's just a political tactic, telling the Legislature that if they want cuts, TDCJ administrators will try to make sure it's all the recent programming approved in the last two sessions that gets the axe first while prisons remain sacrosanct. That's the position TDCJ successfully took in 2003 and the result raised costs instead of lowered them; it'd be a shame if the Legislature took the same sucker bet again.