Thursday, October 26, 2006

How much of Texas' budget surplus must go to new prisons?

I'm skeptical of large, election-season predictions of massive budget surpluses - they allow politicians to conveniently promise everybody everything, then break all the promises without consequence when the real figures come out lower in Januay. ("Perry predicts record budget surplus," Fort Worth Star Telegram, Oct. 24). But even if Texas' budget surplus is as big as predicted (I've seen estimates from $8 - $16 billion), it seems like it's already spent.

Says Governor Perry, “Our budget surplus is going to be so friggin’ big . . . why not lower the [business] tax rate down to three-fourths of a cent, or a half-cent? . . . I’m all for that.”

Problem is, about $7 billion off the top must go to the schools just to maintain the status quo - much more if Texans want teachers to have raises or secure pensions, not to mention programs really proven to work at preventing dropouts and teaching kids basic skills. (Half of minority kids in Houston drop out of high school.)

Perry also says Texas will re-appropriate millions taken during his tenure from Texas state parks. And he's seeking more than $100 million for Operation Linebacker and similar border security efforts.

Nowhere in this litany do I ever hear talk of new prison building. Texas currently operates 106 prison units, and the Legislative Budget Board predicts it will need three more just to meet current population projections by 2009, assuming the Legislature doesn't boost penalties even higher.

The figure one frequently hears bandied about for new prisons is $422 million in the next biennium, which in some sense might be do-able if the surplus really were that big, and if the Lege doesn't choose to spend it on other things. But that's really a low-ball estimate. The prison would be built with bonds, and the Texas Sunset Review Commission estimated the total cost to taxpayers for three new units would be more than $700 million by the time the debt was paid, plus $72 million per year more to staff them.

That means the total cost to Texas taxpayers for three new prisons would be about $2.1 billion over 20 years - a cool extra $100 million per year, on average, basically ad infinitum.

Here's the rub: Texas can't presently staff existing prisons - for years we've chroniclally hovered at about 3,000 guards short, with one in four guards quitting every year. Texas would need to fill those slots and add an additional thousand guards to staff three new units. That probably cannot happen.

So from a practical perspective, building costs aren't the only barrier - these units might actually sit mothballed once built, just like the overcrowded Harris County Jail which has prisoners sleeping on the floor but also more than 1,800 beds in an unused jail wing - not becuase of lack of space but because of lack of guards to oversee them.

Governor Perry vetoed a solution in 2005 that would have prevented this crisis and allowed for stronger supervision of more nonviolent offenders in the community. Without saying so, his vetoes represented a choice: more prisons instead of strengthening the probation system. IMO, it made the public less safe.

In my heart of hearts I don't blame Gov. Perry for his veto of stronger probation, at least on my better days - it was his decision to make, after all, even if I strongly disagree with it. But when the Governor makes a decision that will cost Texas taxpayers $2 billion they could spend on other things - like schools, roads, bridges, children's healthcare, and border security - he should at least be up front and tell the public that his veto already decided, in effect, how to spend big chunk of this "friggin big" surplus.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like both existing and enhanced probation services might be an answer for some of the budget issues facing TDCJ; however, aren't probation departments poorly administered state wide and generally understaffed and poor performing with respect to service delivery. I often hear that probation is part of the solution, but it always seems that when probation is closley reviewed it is not really an effective component for rehabilitation of felony defendants/offenders.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ anonymous: that's exactly why they needed the reforms Gov. Perry vetoed. They would have cut caseloads dramatically and allowed closer supervision.

I think you have to think of probation not in it's current, weak form, but as it could be. Stronger probation coupled with progressive sanctions instead of a revocations, especially for technical violations, could reduce crime and give incentives to offenders to earn their way off probation early through good behavior. Right now they keep them on as long as possible to maximize fee income. best,

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