Sunday, April 28, 2013

Budget conferees gather with opposing mandates on prison closures, purchases

Earlier this month, Grits had reported, the Texas House approved a budget that rebuffed the Senate's decision to close two private prison units, deciding to keep them and purchase another, empty unit in Jones County that the state doesn't need. On Friday they made it official as representatives of the two chambers head into the conference committee, reported the Statesman's Mike Ward:
The Texas House on Friday voted to buy an unused West Texas prison for $19.5 million, brushing aside growing criticism that the state has 12,000 empty prison beds and is wasting taxpayers’ money.

The decision to leave intact funding for the 1,100-bed Jones County lockup is expected to set up a showdown with Senate leaders, who have openly criticized the House as engaging in pork barrel politics.
The House approved the purchase in House Bill 1025, a supplemental appropriations measure, by a 129-9 vote.

“We’ll look forward to a discussion with the Senate,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. “This is just putting it out there for discussion. This is not the final version of the bill.”
From the story, it sounds like Rep. Sylvester Turner, who's on the conference committee, isn't a fan of the Jones County unit, and Chairman Pitts is open to omitting excess capacity from the "final version." If Senate conferees stick to their guns - and with John Whitmire among conferees, you'd expect them to - there's a decent, bettor's chance Texas may end up closing units this time instead of pointlessly expanding capacity, as the House has suggested. Here are the lists of House and Senate budget conferees, respectively:
  • House: Pitts, Crownover, Otto, S. Turner, Zerwas
  • Senate: Williams, Duncan, Hinojosa, Nelson, Whitmire
Surprising opposition has arisen in the House to closing the Dawson State Jail and the pre-parole facility in Mineral Wells, as the Senate has suggested. Besides the obvious, pork-barrel reasons (Corrections Corporation of America runs both facilities and its champions don't want them shuttered), it's been suggested that the Dawson State Jail in particular services women from the Dallas area disproportionately. That's true to a small extent, but the Hutchins State Jail takes even more inmates from Dallas, presently operates under capacity and could take the extra Dallas inmates and gender-specific programming, if so-directed. The relatively minor, bureaucratic adjustments that would be required to manage the inmate population if Dawson were closed pales in comparison to the extra expense of keeping it open. The Senate essentially paid for a 5% prison guard pay hike by eliminating two private-prison contracts the state doesn't need. If those units stay open, as the House envisions, and the state buys another empty unit, the question for conferees becomes, "How does the state pay for wage increases for corrections staff, or do those just go away?" Root for the senate conferees to stand firm on this one and hope for the House side to give into the imperatives of reason and math.

MORE: In another story by Mike Ward on related subjects, he quotes Sen. John Whitmire succinctly summing up the conflict on prisons between the upper and lower chambers. “The people in the House who are for buying a prison we don’t need, and are for keeping two existing prisons open that we don’t need, are the same tea party, fiscal conservatives who campaigned for less government and cutting wasteful spending,” he said. “Everyone wants to cut government waste, but it’s very hard to shut down anything.”

AND MORE (4/29): Patti Hart reported that John Whimire is "irate" over the House's decision to purchase the Jones County facility, and I can understand why. That said, if Chairman Whitmire were "irate" nearly as often as the MSM portray him that way the poor man would surely have suffered a coronary by now. Still, the starting position of the House on prisons in the budget is certainly insensible and frustrating. Where are all the small-government budget cutters when you need them?

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