Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Fiscal Note Fantasy World

The debate over increasing prison penalties has always had a bizarre, surreal quality in Texas because it's based entirely on obviously false financial calculations about how much punishments cost. Take the issue of penalty increases for burglarizing a vehicle, discussed at length yesterday at a House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing. The fiscal note on Vicki Truitt's HB 151, for example (which would increase penalties for vehicle burglarly from a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony) estimated additional costs to the state of about $9 million for the bill, based on a probably low-balled 500 new prisoners per biennium, but excluded any prison building expense.

That's typical -- as long as I've been involved in the issue, I've never seen honest fiscal notes on these penalty-increase bills that accurately anticipate incarceration costs.

The Legislative Budget Board, which compiles these fiscal notes, is living in an utter fantasy world, divorced from all economic reality. Texas prisons are completely full right now. To incarcerate another 500+ prisoners would require building an entire new prison unit (costs for which I've seen estimated at $200-$350 million). Why aren't THOSE costs included in the fiscal note? Because fiscal notes are political, not financial reports -- the legislators lobby and cajole the board to get the notes as low as possible. Then, when these lowballed estimates get into the state budget, they cause the state to consistently underestimate its real resource needs.

The politicization of the fiscal note process is a real disservice to the state. It's certainly had a corrosive effect on criminal justice policy, leading Texas down a garden path toward the current crisis.

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