Friday, April 29, 2011

Lege diverting 'dedicated' criminal justice fees to balance budget

One regrettable trend emerging in the 82nd Texas Legislature is to divert funds from dedicated fees - both in the criminal justice arena and elsewhere - to help certify the budget. State Sen. Rodney Ellis has criticized SB 1582, which raids money designated for juror pay and withholds grants from the Task Force on Indigent Defense to counties. The bill passed out of the Texas Senate yesterday. According to Ellis' press release:
In 2005, Texas ranked dead last in the nation in what it paid jurors, who had not received a pay raise since 1954.  To boost jury participation, the legislature added an additional $4 fee on criminal convictions, and used the fee to provide Texas counties funds to raise jury pay to $40 a day.  In addition, any money raised above the level to fund the jury pay raise was dedicated to the Texas Fair Defense Fund to provide indigent criminal defense.
SB 1582 essentially eliminates the juror pay raise and uses that money to certify the budget.  SB 1582 also takes the millions in the Fair Defense Account and uses it to balance the budget.
"This is a rip-off," said Ellis.  "It took years to force this state to make these small but vital justice reforms and now, in one fell swoop, we are destroying any progress we've made."
Furthermore, in CSHB 1, the Task Force on Indigent Defense is now granted a "sum certain appropriation" rather than "estimated budget authority."  This seemingly minor change significantly reduces the amount of money available for indigent defense grants to Texas counties. It is estimated that $16.6 million will accrue in the Fair Defense Account over the coming biennium to balance the budget rather than be spent on grants to the counties for indigent defense, even though the Account is funded through a series of court-related fees specifically put in place solely to fund indigent defense.
"This is yet another example of this legislature taking money from those at the bottom while protecting those at the top," said Ellis.  "We used the exact same fee we are going to raid under this bill--this $4 fee on convictions--to give judges a pay raise that same session.   Are we going to reduce the salaries of our judges this session? No." 
"At some point we must stop the smoke and mirrors, stop robbing Peter to pay Paul and address the structural challenges facing this state," Ellis said.
Peggy Fikac at the Houston Chronicle has a story about the bill, quoting state Sen. Kirk Watson criticizing the practice of gather fees under a pretext that they're designated for a specific purpose, only to divert funds after the fact:
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, also questioned the practice of keeping large unspent balances from fees to help balance the budget. If the revenue is not allocated for a fee's intended purpose, it can be used instead to allow more spending elsewhere.

An estimated $3.7 billion in balances is used in this way in the current budget, and Watson said that would rise to an estimated $4 billion or more in the budget proposal.

He called it "a growing bad practice of financial management, which is that we tell the public we're raising a fee or a tax for a specific purpose, but it gets used to balance the budget in other ways."
Another great example of what he's talking about may be found in the plan to cut funding for local 911 emergency lines while keeping the dedicated fee on cell phones and landlines that pay for it. And of course, on a much larger scale, it's why Texas hospitals aren't getting most of the money "dedicated" for trauma centers from the Driver Responsibility surcharge.

The same thing is happening with the Texas Auto Burglary Theft and Prevention Authority, which is funded by a $1 fee on every insurance policy. The Corpus Christi Caller Times reports on plans for "keeping the $1 charge but doing away with the task forces statewide. The state would use the money to help plug a budget shortfall of billions of dollars." As Grits has argued previously, cutting grants for investigating auto thefts and burglaries is especially absurd in combination with a proposed penalty enhancement to the crime of burglary of a vehicle. Clearance rates for vehicle burglaries are already minuscule, so it makes no sense at all to slash investigative resources but INCREASE spending on punishment of the handful of offenders caught. Adding insult to injury, SB 9, which just passed the Senate yesterday, would double that theft prevention fee and divert half the increase to other priorities. 

These fees and surcharges were all created for one reason: The Legislature wanted to pay for this or that program but was unwilling to raise taxes. So they created supposedly "dedicated" fees to generate cash that they pretend are not tax increases. But now that dedicated money is becoming just another General Revenue source, making the fig leaf that fees aren't taxes that much more implausible. At this point, it's become a distinction without a difference.


Anonymous said...

So true! Unfortunately grits you don't have enough time or space to list all of the bills asking for a new fee to be levied this session. So somehow cutting Indigent defense funding, adding even more unaffordable fees on offenders, so when they can't pay send them to prisons... Will generate more revenue?

Anonymous said...

End the charades, all income and outgo should be run thru the general fund to force the lege to take the decisions in plain view.