Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Tight budgets and corrections priorities

Federal budget numbers are always flabbergasting to me and I can only react with awe to the news that the 2009 federal deficit totaled $1.2 TRILLION, with a big, fat, capital "T."

Most state budgets including Texas, OTOH, must balance themselves or else request specific debt approval from voters in bond elections, so state budgets by far are hit harder when tax revenues level off or decline in tough times. The Houston Chronicle's April Castro had a good piece yesterday what Texas' state budget picture might look like ("Lawmakers await comptrollers revenue announcement," Jan.6), predicting a modest $2 billion surplus over the last biennium:

Texas will likely have to pay up to $2 billion for its share of costs from Hurricane Ike, rapid growth in Medicaid costs and enrollment, lower oil prices that might mean less income in the state's Rainy Day Fund, slowed consumer spending and lower-than-projected revenues from the state's new business tax in the fund intended to pay for public schools.

The Ike and Medicaid enrollment growth could cost together as much as $3.2 billion in the 2008-2009 budget before lawmakers even get started on the 2010-2011 budget, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and current House Speaker Tom Craddick have estimated.

The so-called surplus is made up of three parts:

_ $5.7 billion in the Rainy Day Fund from taxes that companies pay for producing oil and gas. That fund can only be tapped with the approval of a super-majority of the Legislature.

_ $3 billion set aside two years ago to give to schools to make up for property tax cuts.

_ $2 billion left over for lawmakers' discretionary spending.

Further exacerbating budget uncertainties, health care costs are rapidly rising and enrollment in entitlement programs is expected to grow with the economic slowdown.

Even with $3 billion stashed away for schools, a fund used to replace some school property tax money will fall at least $5 billion short of the $14 billion hole lawmakers created two years ago when they lowered school property tax rates by a third. That's mostly because revenues from the new business tax — revamped to replace some school property taxes in education funding — aren't as much as expected.

This year, it appears that money will be available without having to cut from other state spending. But it will take a bite out the state's economic growth that would have otherwise padded the surplus.

That's better than most states who're in the red, but a lot less to work with than had been suggested in previous official estimates. If these data are accurate they'll pit other areas of government against the criminal justice system, which faces some big ticket items on its plate, some of which are necessary to prevent even greater costs:

Increased pay for prison guards: Approximately $460 million to raise pay at TDCJ by 20%. The agency is currently around 3,000 guards short with high turnover rates and major problems at some units with guards making extra money on the side smuggling contraband. TDCJ shut down wings at two units (in Dalhart and Fort Stockton) last year in response to critical understaffing. For all exceptional items including the proposed pay hikes, TDCJ's legislative appropriations request (pdf) projects more than $1 billion in increased costs for the biennium just to keep inmate numbers at current levels.

Outpatient competency restoration: The Department of State Health Services last year funded five pilot programs aimed at providing outpatient competency restoration using "emergency" money given it by the Legislature in 2007. These pilots have been highly successful in reducing needless, costly state hospital commitments which often took up beds needed by regular, non-offender taxpayers with mental health needs.

While the Department of State Health Services' LAR (see page 53 of the pdf) contemplates keeping funding near current levels for these programs (actually cutting it slightly now that initial startup costs are complete), truly it's penny wise and pound foolish if these pilots aren't fully funded and expanded to every urban center. Such a move which would reduce pressure to build even more expensive state hospital beds - a likely outcome of pending litigation before DSHS rolled out this new initiative - and relieve pressure on county jails who must house the inmates until a state hospital bed comes open. This really is a pay me now or pay (more) later kind of deal.

Expanding Governor Perry's Border Initiative: At Gov. Perry's insistence, in 2007 the Legislature spent $140 million over the biennium on "border security" in the 16 Texas counties along the Rio Grande - mostly for overtime and equipment at those 16 county sheriff's departments. This year he wants to continue that funding and expand the grants to include grants to urban areas, an idea that seems to me similar to Bill Clinton's federal COPS program.

Paying for TYC Improvements: While the Sunset Advisory Commission suggested it might be possible to save money by merging the Texas Youth Commission and the Juvenile Probation Commission, there are many problems at both agencies that can only be addressed by expanding services - particularly special ed and mental health services, along with moving to smaller, rehab-oriented facilities and improving reentry programming.

In addition, if counties must pay private vendors to house commitments TYC previously took, the cost of those grants - including adequate state oversight - will not be significantly less than if a state agency does the job. Breaking even would be getting off cheap at TYC. In fact, given the agency's current, barely out of crisis status, reducing spending risks underinvesting in critical educational and anti-recidivism components that, from a public safety perspective, deserve more attention in Appropriations, not less.

Will UTMB move their prison hospital in the wake of Hurricane Ike? If so the state must pay to reconstruct a new facility elsewhere while suffering serious medium-term dislocations in what was already a poorly functioning care-delivery system. Relatedly, no word on how the hurricane and massive layoffs affected UTMB's telemedicine program, which provides much inmate of the specialty and psychiatric care both at TYC and TDCJ. How much new investment will be required to get everything back up to speed?

Funding "Innocence" Work: The Fort Worth Star Telegram said on Sunday that post-conviction work Texas law shool innocence clinics should receive a modest budget boost to help finish vetting outstanding DNA claims - in part to offset the effects of the Madoff scandal on my employers at the Innocence Project of Texas. The Startlegram emphasized out that boosting funding for innocence work by $1 million would cost just more than 1/500 of the proposed pay hike for guards.

These costs overall seem ominously high if the numbers reported by the Chronicle are accurate. That's perhaps $1.5 billion or more in "exceptional" criminal justice related budget items on the table right off the bat, when predictions call for perhaps $2 billion in total discretionary spending across the entire state budget- a figure which could be swallowed up in a heartbeat by a $5 billion hole in school finance.

More on this when we get official numbers from the Comptroller next week.

RELATED: From Talk Left, "Will the Recession Mean More Traffic Tickets?"


Rage Judicata said...

I'm also concerned that the state will continue to look for revenue in toll roads. After all, Perry recently said "the name Trans-Texas Corridor is over with," Not that "it's dead." That indicates to me that he may try to keep more of it than not, just call it the Connectivity Plan instead.

Robert Langham said...

What the hell are you talking about "lowered property tax rates by a third? Mines up and the appraisal district tells me I'm STILL not paying my fair share!

Don Dickson said...

....and you didn't even MENTION the DPS.

DPS was chastised in the Deloitte study for having a history and a practice of NOT asking the Legislature for budget items it truly needs. So this time around it'll be asking for the moon and the stars and all the fishes in the deep blue sea, including a hefty chunk for a disaster preparedness contingency fund. (Natural disasters aren't so much of a "contingency" around here...they seem to occur with some regularity and predictability, and they wreak havoc on the Department's operating budget and cash flow.)

Moreover, it's going to take a big chunk of money to provide pay raises to officers and non-commissioned staff (all of whom earnestly need and deserve them).

Mo-mo-money for vehicles, lots of vehicles. No scrimping here, it's absolutely essential.

And I don't know where Sunset got the idea that civilianizing the DL division is a "no-cost recommendation." Just this morning I had occasion to ride in the patrol vehicle of a DL Trooper, a vehicle that is NOT equipped with all of the same electronics and other gear that is now installed in all THP vehicles. Just outfitting the cars for 224 Troopers transferring from DL to THP is going to require a big chunk of money.

And almost none of the items I've mentioned are "discretionary" or on a "wish list." They're really mission-critical.

Anonymous said...

Well the state may have lowered the property tax rate a year back by shifting it to some other burden. But here the Austin ISD and Travis(ity) county well took up for the differences with tax increases though bond taxes. When are we the people going to fight against this unconstitutional act called property taxes. You pay off the mortgage but will never, never owner your land. You rent it each and every year from the government via property taxes .

Anonymous said...

"when they lowered school property tax rates by a third."

Yea, and they made up for it by jacking up my appraisal.

Anonymous said...

Gosh Mr. Dickson, I thought troopers were paid rather handsomely compared to most rural Texas deputy sheriff's. Maybe you can lobby for us since we do the same if not more as troopers stationed in rural areas.

The following job add posted today is just one of many examples.

Edwards County has an opening for a patrol deputy effective immediately.
Starting pay $27,000 with $6,000 overtime and a take home vehicle fully
equiped. Insurance and uniform allowance is provided. Edwards County is a
large county with low population and a layed back atmosphere and cheap cost
of living. Call for an application and interview.

Anonymous said...

Save a ton of money...dissolve TYC!

Anonymous said...

If you ever had to work around these jerks - TYC kids, then you would realize why we punish/abuse them. They need and deserve abuse. When we treat them well, they spit on us.

Don Dickson said...

Anon 5:30, visit the Troopers Association's web site message board and read what a few have had to say about those (cough) hard-working local deputies just in the last 36 hours. Some of them are apparently content to sit in their patrol cars at minor crash sites for an hour or two just to wait for a Trooper to show up from two other crash sites to hand the drivers "blue forms" and send them on their way.

I'm also gonna hazard a guess that the qualifications to become an Edwards County deputy are a little different than those of the DPS -- including a 26-week recruit school that makes grown men cry.

Nor will an Edwards County deputy ever be transferred against his will to Chambers County, or temporarily deployed against his will for 28 day stretches in Eagle Pass, or on the Dallas Tollway. And an Edwards County deputy can promote all the way up the ranks without ever leaving Edwards County -- a Trooper will find it almost impossible to promote without uprooting his family.

They make more than an Edwards County deputy, no doubt. But according to the Office of the State Auditor, they make less than officers employed by all of the state's largest county/municipal departments. And that should not be the case.

Anonymous said...

Let those out of prison who are not dangerous, violent or have habitual tendencies for reoffense. This could save us tons of money and we would not need more guards. Maybe we could also continue to release those who have been falsely accused. WOW what a concept? TDC is a huge part of TX budget and should be looked at with ways to cut costs there.

Anonymous said...

"Nor will an Edwards County deputy ever be transferred against his will to Chambers County, or temporarily deployed against his will for 28 day stretches in Eagle Pass, or on the Dallas Tollway."

Yep, and when that trooper is commissioned he is an officer of the state and not of a county or a city which means he or she can be deployed to any part of the state. They know that when they accept employment.

"Some of them are apparently content to sit in their patrol cars at minor crash sites for an hour or two just to wait for a Trooper to show up from two other crash sites to hand the drivers "blue forms" and send them on their way."

Yea and don't forget about the ones who have two sit at a crash site for an hour or two because a dispatcher can't locate an on call trooper because the trooper can't or refuses to keep a contact telephone or wants to argue with dispatch that he's not on call when the schedule says he is and then dispatch has to call the sergeant to get the trooper to come out.

Mr. Dickson, as with most le agencies, the problem with your pay proposal is that some troopers do not have the professional work ethics that most members of DPS display, yet those with lesser work or moral ethics undeservingly make the same as those who are credit and asset to DPS. And that's where the line needs to be drawn.

Anonymous said...

I'm also gonna hazard a guess that the qualifications to become an Edwards County deputy are a little different than those of the DPS --

Our SO has lost several long tenured employees to DPS because of low pay paid by our county. Those employees were apparently QUALIFIED to not only be jailers or deputies, they were QUALIFIED to be troopers. I wonder where the difference lied.

And because they had previous le experience at the county level, they know the ins and outs of SO operations and the level of performed work. We've been fortunate these former employees are stationed in our county or in counties contiguous with ours which makes for better interagency cooperation.

Anonymous said...

I know we have enough laws but should it be a criminal offense to vote for a legislator who was not present to vote?

Do you suppose the Legislature will do something this timne about "Ghost voting?"

Anonymous said...

RELATED: From Talk Left, "Will the Recession Mean More Traffic Tickets?"

Sec. 542.402. DISPOSITION OF FINES. (a) A municipality or county shall use a fine collected for a violation of a highway law in this title to:
(1) construct and maintain roads, bridges, and culverts in the municipality or county;
(2) enforce laws regulating the use of highways by motor vehicles; and
(3) defray the expense of county traffic officers.
(b) In each fiscal year, a municipality having a population of less than 5,000 may retain, from fines collected for violations of this title and from special expenses collected under Article 45.051, Code of Criminal Procedure, in cases in which a violation of this title is alleged, an amount equal to 30 percent of the municipality's revenue for the preceding fiscal year from all sources, other than federal funds and bond proceeds, as shown by the audit performed under Section 103.001, Local Government Code. After a municipality has retained that amount, the municipality shall send to the comptroller any portion of a fine or a special expense collected that exceeds $1

Don Dickson said...

....and if it takes two hours for a Trooper to show up at your crash scene, it may very well be because he's been deployed on Operation Border Star. We have many counties in Texas that have very little coverage at the moment. In some sergeant areas we have four Troopers doing the work of twelve.

Anonymous said...

"and if it takes two hours for a Trooper to show up at your crash scene, it may very well be because he's been deployed on Operation Border Star."

It's been that way in my county for years, well before Operation Border Star was implemented. Using OBS as an ecxuse is lame.

Anonymous said...

Texas Administrative Code
Next Rule>>

RULE §3.1 Responsibility and Reporting


(a) Officers of the department are charged with the responsibility of investigation and properly reporting rural motor vehicle crashes occurring upon public highways or other ways or places open to the use of the public without regard as to severity of the accident.

(b) Officers of the department will, insofar as practicable, make an on-the-scene investigation and properly report rural motor vehicle crashes of which they are made aware

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous 01/08/09 02:11 AM; let those out of prison who are not repeat offenders and who have proved themselves to be upright citizens and do not deserve to the locked up.

There are many of them who were put there by lies from everyone, including the DA, Judge and the juries do not have a clue and are not educated enough to realize DAs will lie and tell half truths just to win. Court trials in today's world are won by whomever has the best actor, either the DA or the Defense Attorney and not by the facts presented and there are times when judges do not let facts even be entered that would prove the innocence of someone.

Something has to be done regarding the court system and some of the judges need to be removed from the bench.

Releasing those who were paroled and then the parole taken away should be released ASAP, that would relieve some of the tight money situation and at the cost of nearly $50.00/day to house over 165,000 Inmates, think about the savings.

Governor Perry needs to find his dream job and get out of the, I would say Mansion, but that no longer exists, instead we pay rent on a house to the tune of $10 million dollars. Time for him to find his dream job and just GO!!!

Don Dickson said...

New York State, with roughly the same population as Texas, has 24 state police officers per 100,000 population. Texas has 15 per 100,000. And New York has a civilian motor vehicle department.

Fill our 300 vacancies, and give us another 1,000 or so FTEs, and we'll reduce Trooper response times to your wrecks.
Incidentally, speaking of budgeting, DPS -added- $180 million to its LAR today.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

How much more is DPS' LAR this time (so far, perhaps I should say) compared to last biennium, Don?

Don Dickson said...

On the other hand, the Public Safety Commission just voted to remove from its LAR an exceptional item request to purchase a new jet aircraft. They're going to make due with the 1985 Aero Commander they have been using.

Grits, I'm no expert at reading these LARs, but I'm going to email you a pdf page that may answer your question.

Anonymous said...


Motor Vehicles in Texas is a "civilian department" The last time I looked it was located in TxDOT, not DPS, and even includes the Auto Theft Task Force, VTR, Common Carriers, etc. DPS only has driver's licenses and state troopers

Don Dickson said...

I was referring to the state agency responsible for issuance of drivers licenses and motor vehicle inspections. In over forty states it is a completely civilian function. In Texas it is historically a law enforcement function, and we have hundreds of Troopers assigned to doing things which in other states are done by civilians. For further information you should refer to the Sunset Commission Staff Report on DPS, and to the Deloitte Consultants study on the organizational structure of the DPS. The Sunset report is available at and the Deloitte study can be accessed via the DPS homepage at

Anonymous said...

Put TDCJ or TYC in the labels and the nuts come out!

Anonymous said...

Hey Scott. Is there a way to contact you off-line, without making a public comment?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sure, email me at

Anonymous said...

Why not allow recruiters from foreign armies to interview TYC offenders before they are released? Let other countries profit from using this garbage in their armies. America needs to learn from other countries---export your problems whenever possible.

Anonymous said...,2933,479102,00.html

NEW YORK — Their budgets in crisis, governors, legislators and prison officials across the nation are making or considering policy changes that will likely remove tens of thousands of offenders from prisons and parole supervision.

Collectively, the pending and proposed initiatives could add up to one of biggest shifts ever in corrections policy, putting into place cost-saving reforms that have struggled to win political support in the tough-on-crime climate of recent decades.

"Prior to this fiscal crisis, legislators could tinker around the edges — but we're now well past the tinkering stage," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration.

Anonymous said...

I hear that the foreign nationals from Mexico and Nigeria that are now TDCJ guards are exempt from paying taxes. However they supposedly qualify for social security, health insurance, pension and the rest. Boy I sure hope that the simpletons who comprise the Texas public don't find out about this one.