Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Governor's budget compact should start by rolling back corrections spending

A central proposal from Gov. Rick Perry's suggested "budget compact" indicates he would "Support a Constitutional limit of spending to the growth of population and inflation" and "Practice truth in budgeting."

The latter pledge strikes me as flat-out surreal after the Governor last session signed a budget that underfunded state commitments on healthcare and highway spending while sweeping money from "dedicated" accounts like the Crime Victim Compensation Fund into the state's general revenue account.

As for limiting spending growth to combined population and inflation increases, if Texas had followed that policy over the last three decades, the state corrections budget would be just more than a quarter of what it is today (see "TDCJ budget grew 274% more than inflation, population growth since early '80s").

Of course, what drove that massive increase were expanded penalties the Lege didn't pay for - nearly every sentencing "enhancement" receives a fiscal note claiming the budget impact will be inconsequential. The Legislative Budget Board pretends new criminal penalties will be cost free unless they affect more than 100 cases per year, but dozens of "enhancement" bills pass every session that collectively cost the state millions, and even larger penalty hikes are typically underestimated.

At a minimum, if we're going to limit budget growth to inflation plus population, then inflation should be taken into account in the property crime thresholds, which haven't increased since 1993. Theft in Texas reaches state jail felony levels at the $1,500 mark, but adjusting for inflation, stealing $1,500 in 2012 is the same as stealing $941 in 1993, when the theft categories were established. Because the Lege has been reluctant to increase those thresholds, essentially penalty enhancements for theft have been put on autopilot. In other words, thanks to inflation, every year it becomes a felony to steal less and less stuff.

Also, because charging and sentencing discretion is left mostly to the counties, there's little the state can do to stop ever more people from being sentenced. E.g., the presumptive next Harris County District Attorney has said he'll reinstate a policy to charge people caught with a crack pipe with felony possession based on trace amounts of the drug scraped from the apparatus. The Lege could limit the budget impact by notching down penalty categories by one level so that counties would foot the bill for such decisions, but unless they do, given Harris County's size, they can't viably plan to reduce costs from expanded drug-war incarceration.

Recent legislative reforms affecting probation and parole were a welcome first step, but they only scratch the surface of the massive expansion of Texas corrections spending witnessed in recent decades. Today, Texas incarcerates more people than California, which has a half-again larger population than we do and lower crime rates. It's fine for the Governor to say spending should be limited to population and inflation growth, but actions speak louder than words.

RELATED: "Six Impossible Things': Do you believe in a conservative, rational and smaller corrections budget?"

1 comment:

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, looks like we keep getting what we deserve when we the people mandatorily hire lawmakers every couple of years to make new laws. The R's won't be rolling anything back anytime soon.

Both parties and the so-called inbetweeners are guilty of killing the state one law at a time and the voters / taxpayers are 100% the blame. At some point, the camel's back just friggin blows out. Thanks.

Note: and at some point, one of them will propose that butter knives, homemade bisquits & possessing red hair be banned on the beach. Having all three would be a felony and for heaven's sake there better not be any friggin oysters within arms reach.