Reducing taxes is only a sustainable goal if government simultaneously reduces the number of things for which it's obligated to pay. Otherwise, what occurs in practice is cost shifting, not cost cutting. Sustainable tax cuts must be preceded by cuts on the spending side, which is the piece that's largely been missing from proposals so far by the state leadership. True to form, most of our politicians calling for tax cuts simultaneously want to boost spending at the border, on roads, and for a laundry list of other items. This year, perhaps they can get away with that because of expanded revenue from a thriving economy. But the vicissitudes of fate dictate that won't always be the case.
Grits can't speak as knowledgeably to other areas of the budget, but criminal justice spending continues to balloon well beyond what Texas' declining crime rates might lead one to anticipate. Investments in diversion spending from 2007 onward have helped prisoner numbers level off, but their population is aging and overall costs continues to rise. (Medical providers have told TDCJ, for example, they need $174.8 million more for healthcare alone in the next biennium to meet minimum standards.)
If the Legislature chooses to incarcerate the same number of people it does now, much less if they want to increase the number of people in prison, or allow it to increase, then costs will continue to escalate and taxes must be gathered from some source or another to pay for it. Ditto for county jail and indigent defense costs, which are big cost drivers for county property taxes.
So, what policy choices would facilitate lower spending on criminal justice without harming public safety? Here's a simple recipe for cutting corrections budgets in Texas at both the state and local level by reducing incarceration of nonviolent offenders:
Make small-time drug possession a Class A misdemeanor
Pass legislation reducing penalties for possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance (roughly the contents of a Sweet-N-Low packet) from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to a $4,000 fine and a year in jail. According to the Legislative Budget Board, this move would save the state nearly $100 million in the coming biennium and allow TDCJ to close multiple state jail facilities. Grits would suggest spending a portion of the savings on new misdemeanor probation programs aimed at reducing caseloads, bolstering treatment programming, and managing the additional probationers.
Index property crimes to inflation
Following the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's recommendation, index property crime thresholds to inflation and deal with petty thieves at the local level instead of through the state prison system. Value thresholds set in 1993 are outdated and create a situation where cases that would have been misdemeanors creep into felony range because of economics, not increased culpability. The Legislative Budget Board in 2013 declined to estimate the precise budget effects of adjusting property thresholds upward but acknowledged that:
Raising the threshold for the value of property stolen is expected to result in decreased demands upon the correctional resources of counties or of the state due to shorter terms of probation, or shorter terms of confinement in county jails or prison. Since the bill is raising the threshold for the value of property stolen for theft (misdemeanor and state jail felony) the impact on the state as a result of raising the threshold is likely to result in a decreased demand on the correctional resources of the state since offenders previously punished as state jail felons would now be punished as Class A misdemeanants.Similar to the proposal on drug crimes, it'd be nice to see a portion of savings from this move go to local probation departments to help manage the extra probationers they'll receive as a result.
The above suggestions would reduce the state budget, perhaps allowing the Legislature to close three to five state jails, probably through eliminating private prison contracts set to expire in the near future. But will counties be ready to handle those new cases? They will if the Lege finishes off its cost-reduction regimen by following this advice:
Shift B misdemeanors to Cs on small-time pot possession and invalid licenses
Here's how to free up resources at the local level to manage those new offenders who otherwise may have been sentenced to TDCJ: Reduce penalties for low-level pot possession and driving with an invalid license (DWLI) on subsequent offenses from Class B to Class C misdemeanors (or in the case of marijuana, perhaps applying a civil penalty, as suggested by state Rep. Joe Moody.) Those two changes in 2014 would have avoided more than 90,000 Class B arrests (source: add total new cases for marijuana possession and Class B DWLI from here and here), respectively, reducing counties' policing, jail and indigent defense costs by more than enough to offset the new, additional defendants who would be shifted to county purview from the state jail felony category. (See Grits' recent column in the Dallas News advocating those reforms.)
Make those few, interconnected changes and the state could curb upward pressure on incarceration spending at the state and local levels, saving nine-figure sums while adequately funding local systems and reducing burdens on county government, perhaps closing several jail units in the bargain.
What this proposal fails to address are rising healthcare costs of long-time prisoners with insensibly interminable sentences whose end-of-life medical bills drive higher prison health costs. However, medical parole debates have been contentious and the politics of reducing long sentences for violent offenders are more volatile. These suggestions instead would reduce the churn of short-term state jail inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses, focusing state resources on more serious offenders and leaving small-timers to the locals to manage with new funds derived from the resultant budget savings.
That's IMO what's politically possible in 2015 and, if the Lege would do it, they could lay claim not just to cutting taxes but also smartly cutting spending. For "less government" to also be wise government, both have to occur.