Friday, March 04, 2005

Bleeding Red Ink: Why LBB is to Blame for Bad Prison Budgets

I've said it before, but the Texas Legislative Budget Board over the years has created a lot of unnecessary red ink in the state budget by misleading the Legislature about the real costs of increasing prison sentences.

Here's another example. On Monday the House Law Enforcement Committee will hear HB 311 by McReynolds, which increases the penalty for making false statements to a police officer a state jail felony if they pertain to a felony investigation. I've got other concerns about the bill, e.g., a lot of lies are told to the police for juvenile, silly, or emotionally disturbed reasons that don't merit treatment as a felony, but for the moment, let's look at the financial aspects.

Right now, the penalty for that crime is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in the county jail. Local government pays those costs. State jails are paid for by the state budget. So, if you increase the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony, logically you must increase state budget costs by the cost of incarcerating X number of people who annually falsely report felonies to the police times about $40 per day, or $15 grand per year.

I have no idea how many people are convicted of this crime each year, or what kind of budget figure we're talking about, but presumably it's some positive number, or why else would Rep. McReynolds be proposing the law? Let's lowball and say the state would incarcerate ten new people each year who lie to police in felony investigations. A state jail felony sentence is two years, at about $15,000 per year, disregarding the cost of building new facilities. (Remember, Texas prisons are full and we have no more space for these folks.) So that'd be $150,000 in the first year, $300,000 in the second, for a total of nearly half million, minimum, in the first biennium, probably to lease space while we build more costly, presently un-budgeted prison units.

The Legislative Budget Board, though, says that "No significant fiscal impact to the State is anticipated." So then, with a "fiscal note" of ZERO, the bill becomes a lot easier to pass during a session defined by belt-tightening and scrambling for cash to pay for schools.

That it's patently false, a useful fiction everyone involved knows isn't really true, apparently doesn't matter. LBB is a political entity, not some ivory tower full of objective analysts. Their goal
with a fiscal note is to make the bill sponsor happy, or at least not excessively unhappy, not to provide accurate information so the budget numbers will be right. It's been that way as long as I can remember.

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