Tuesday, April 12, 2005

LBB hasn't learned there's no free lunch

The Texas Legislative Budget Board continues to apply zero or negligible "fiscal notes" to bills boosting prison sentences that could cost Texas hundreds of millions of dollars in prison construction costs if implemented.

Fiscal notes estimate costs for bills. They're how the Texas Legislature works costs for new bills into their overall budget. But when calculating prison costs, LBB's estimates are often misleading to the point of deception. Earlier
I wrote about the fiscal insanity of LBB's $9 million cost estimate for HB 151. The real figure is likely between $200 and $350 million.

Several bills increasing prison sentences now moving through the legislative process have been given laughably low fiscal notes, meaning that, for official purposes, the bills have no impact on the budget. The estimates are highly political, and by a sort of gentleman's agreement (because they all want to manipulate the fiscal note process on their own bills), legislators seldom contest LBB's estimates publicly, no matter how absurd.
Each item seems small on its face, but collectively these bills, if enacted, would require even more prison construction, in addition to the five hundred new beds needed to accomodate HB 151.
  • HB 27 by Callegari would allow multiple intoxication assault offenses to be served consecutively, and increases penalties if they cause injury to a peace officer or firefighter. LBB wrote in the fiscal note, "The impact of the bill would depend on the number of persons caught and convicted of the offense; however, in the case of this bill, the increased workload and demand for resources would probably not be substantial." Now, on it's face that's not true. If ANY sentences are given consecutively, or ANY charges increased because they involved a peace officer, clearly incarceration costs to the state increase. Legislators are told, though, that the fiscal note on the bill is "zero."
  • Similarly, LBB said that HB 1871 by Keel, which would make operating a camera phone in a movie theater a state jail felony, would have "no significant impact" on the budget, even though it creates a new crime that never existed before. Bottom line: The only way the bill could have no impact is if no one is ever sentenced under the statute, and if that's the case, why are we doing this again? In reality, some number of people will be charged and sentenced under this law if it's enacted, and while they're in the state jail, taxpayers will finance their upkeep.
  • HB 360 by Talton passed out of committee last week; LBB said the bill will have no significant budget impact, but it increases the penalty for aggravated assault causing bodily injury from a second degree to a first degree felony, which means increasing it from 2-20 years to 5-99. LBB says costs after the first five years "could be significant" but declined to estimate how much. B.S. The cost will be quite large, and deserve consideration. All those extra years living on the taxpayers' tab cost somebody, folks -- there is no free lunch.
  • HB 752 by Giddings is aimed at stopping identity theft. That's a laudable goal, but the substance of the bill would make it a state jail felony to steal anything containing someone's identifying information. The bill has passed the House and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate. Again, to judge by the Fiscal Note, apparently nobody expects to really enforce this law: "Increasing the penalty for any criminal offense is expected to result in increased demands upon the correctional resources of counties or of the State due to longer terms of probation, or, longer terms of confinement in county jails or prison. In the case of this bill, the increased workload and demand for resources would probably not be substantial," wrote LBB. Seems to me I've heard that song before.
  • HB 2104 by Delisi expands the definition of the crime "hindering apprehension" to include harboring a probation violator, not just a person sought under an arrest warrant. How many people will that affect? Who knows? The bill has already passed the House and is headed to the Senate. LBB says its cost isn't "significant."
This array of bills epitomizes how the Texas prison budget suffers a death by a thousand cuts (or, since there are now 1,941 different felonies, you'd have to say more than a thousand) each time the Legislature meets. Collectively, all these bills with supposedly insignificant impacts add up to hundreds of additional prisoners in the system. Since Texas prisons are full, that means spending millions of dollars to build new prison beds, or else to lease them. It'd be nice if legislators had those discussions when voting on prison sentence increases. But LBB's misleading fiscal notes let them pretend all is well.

Actually the full prisons make these bills' cost easy to estimate. Since we have no room for any new prisoners, any increase in sentences will require constructing at least one new prison unit in addition to per-prisoner costs. Passing multiple enhancements may require building multiple units. That's the fiscal reality. Don't expect LBB to shift to reality-based budgeting anytime soon, though.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, has said he's not interested in approving new penalty increases this session, so maybe these bills get bottled up in the Senate. They likely wouldn't have gotten this far, though, if LBB didn't treat them as freebies.

Related: Ann has compiled a comprehensive list of bills increasing prison time.

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