A Senate subcommittee charged with evaluating funds dealing with prisons and the Department of Public Safety recommended increasing appropriations by almost $300 million Monday. These recommendations would restore allocations to current budget levels for many programs. Current funding in the Senate's version of the budget for public safety agencies is about $9 billion, which is more than a billion dollars less than the last budget.Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman summed up the Senate changes thusly:
The subcommittee recommendations would put more money into probation and drug treatment programs and would move $100 million from the state's transportation fund, called Fund Six, to Department of Public Safety. Fund Six diversions have been controversial in the past, as critics say that reducing money marked for highway construction and maintenance leaves the state relying on private entities to build toll roads. Subcommittee Chair Senator John Whitmire said using Fund Six money for highway enforcement is within the constitutional intent of the fund. "I'm very committed to the needs of DPS," he said. "We ask them to do more and more along the border, in particular, and along our highways. Fund Six does allow you to spend highway funds if the security and enforcement is related to our safe highways, so we went with the agency and identified easily a hundred million of their request which could be directly related to safe highways."
The subcommittee will present its recommendations to the full Finance Committee later this week.
Back in: $273 million for the state corrections system, including funding for rehabilitation, treatment and parole programs, plus $31 million to keep the Central Unit in Sugar Land open; and $32.7 million for DPS to hire 646 additional troopers, $22.8 million for new vehicles and unspecified funding to restore the uniform-cleaning allowance for state troopers.This is the same subcommittee that just slashed vocational ed classes in prisons by roughly the same amount as it cost to keep the Central Unit open for the next two years, a decision that IMO should be flip-flopped. Texas already releases 72,000 people per year, so most folks in TDCJ are going to get out. From the standpoint of crime reduction, since they're getting out anyway, I'd much rather the agency close a prison and educate more of the prisoners who remain, which in turn dramatically boosts their chances of being employed one year after incarceration. I wish I knew what secret forces were pushing to keep the Central Unit in Sugar Land open. I've long thought that if there was a chance they'd close any prisons at all in the current budget crunch, it'd be the first one to go; locals have lots of good reasons to want it shut down. But especially if the direct tradeoff, as in this subcommittee's recommendations, is cutting programs that reduce recidivism and long-term incarceration costs.
Out: $10.2 million for operation of a drug treatment lockup in Burnet; $23 million from the Texas Youth Commission's budget, in expectation that the agency will be merged with the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission; and a directive that controversial raises the Youth Commission awarded to eight executives last year be rescinded.
Still on the table: $111.4 million in additional funding for expanded border security.
As far as DPS' budget is concerned, IMO the border security money distributed so far has mostly been misspent on activities that either fundamentally misunderstand the real crime problems on the border or seek to exploit them for political gain at the expense of maximizing public safety per dollar spent. If that's ever gonna change, this is the budget cycle when you'd expect it might. Texas already pays for too much of our transportation budget on credit, and DPS may need more troopers but not more missions. Each new one comes at the expense of the agency's core, historic functions.
This hesitance to act in many ways reflects the public mood. According to polling, the public is living in a fantasyland where they believe the state can continue to fund all government services, not raise taxes, and for many (most importantly the Governor), not raid the Rainy Day Fund. That's not true, and eventually the math will force some behind-the-scenes realism, but likely not until May, or maybe even over the summer.
I'm certainly glad the subcommittee restored most probation and diversion funding, but unless I'm misreading my tea leaves, which is certainly possible, the choice to tradeoff vocational ed in prisons and the treatment facility in Burnet with keeping open the Central Unit may bode ill. It'd be one thing if they cut vocational ed and counted the expense as savings, but just spending money cut from an anti-recidivism program to keep one more prison open shows there are unseen forces pressing the Lege to avoid closing even a single unit. In practice, money to keep open old, outdated prisons like the Central Unit (built in 1909 to provide labor for a now-long gone sugar plantation) come at the expense of programs that reduce future crime and long-term incarceration spending.
These changes do indicate to me that senators expect extra revenue, either from the Rainy Day Fund, new taxes (or fees, etc.), or both. We'll probably know more in the next week or two about how the politics of the Rainy Day Fund will play out in the House. And of course, the real budget doesn't get written until the conference committee at the end. These subcommittee recommendations are but yet another step on a long road to a final budget in the most trying fiscal year for the state in living memory. Still, the tradeoff decisions made early on in these venues risk being cemented among those who've made them and repeated over and over like a fractal - cut programming, don't close prisons. Those are the agency's priorities, but in a leadership vacuum where nobody (with power) but TDCJ is suggesting serious cuts (all to probation, treatment and programming), their recommendations and priorities will inevitably be the ones adopted.
MORE: A few tidbits from watching a bit of the hearing:
The committee invited DPS to come back and present to the subcommittee how much could be raised by jacking up a "large number of fees" the agency charges to drivers and others ... ugh! A tax by another name. This is how we got into the Driver Responsibility surcharge mess.
The subcommittee recommended restoring $40 million to juvenile probation and cut $23 million from youth prisons, including 26 cuts at the TYC Central Office.
LBB made a "technical adjustment" to reduce its estimate of how many employees TDCJ could afford to keep by 723 based on the funding levels in SB 1, potentially presaging more layoffs. OTOH, the subcommittee recommended reinstating the pay 7% pay raise given COs last session which the filed version of SB 1 would have eliminated.
Whitmire said he and Ogden were looking at reductions in the number of private prison beds including Mineral Wells instead of closing the Central Unit, and it "probably" would be closed eventually, but he wanted to keep it on the table heading into the conference committee. Whitmire called keeping the Central Unit open "a concession from me to Ogden."
Part of the reason for suggesting closing the Burnet treatment unit is as a bargaining chip to convince the county to lower its rate. (Sen. Kel Seliger was a great spokesman for treatment and diversion programs.)
The subcommittee recommended restoring General Revenue funding for inspections of county jails by the Commission on Jail Standards, reacting to pushback by the counties over a plan to charge them fees for state inspections. (One suggestion was to let agencies use commissary profits to pay TCJS fees.) If the agency does not get enough GR funding they'll need new statutory authority to charge additional fees to fund their core operations.