Sunday, December 14, 2014

How to deliver local property-tax relief: Cut county jail, court costs for pot, DWLI cases

Texas' statewide leadership has been speaking broadly of property-tax relief throughout the campaign season. But now that elections are over and it's time for governing and budget writing, what exactly does that mean?  Reported Peggy Fikac at the SA Express-News (Dec. 6):
The devil, as always, is in the details of a state budget that totals $200 billion in the current two-year fiscal period, including state and federal funds that are largely spoken for before lawmakers convene. Education and health and human services alone take up nearly three-quarters of the total.

“I fully expect there to be some tax relief. The question is, what’s the nature of it?” said Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.
Texas has plenty of revenue, in theory, but it also has plenty of needs that can easily sop up the $3.4 billion "extra" allowed for under the new spending cap. With a likely adverse school-finance ruling looming, billions in new state spending are practically if not formally spoken for. So how could the state reduce property taxes for the average Texan?

Here's an idea: Reduce local jail costs - which have been a big driver of tax increases in many Texas counties - by reducing penalty categories for low-level marijuana possession (currently a Class B misdemeanor for possession of two ounces or less) and driving with an invalid license (DWLI, currently a Class B misdemeanor on the second offense). Make those two offenses a Class C or even a civil violation and local governments, especially counties, would save money a) by writing tickets instead of jailing people, b) from the fact that attorneys aren't appointed for the indigent in Class C cases, and c) by keeping more officers, both sheriffs deputies and municipal PDs, out on patrol instead of at the jail arresting pot smokers and drivers who couldn't pay the Driver Responsibility surcharge.

Texas already started down this road, reducing first offense DWLI from a Class B to a Class C in 2007 after the Driver Responsibility surcharge flooded county courts with unlicensed drivers in the first years after its passage. That same year, the Lege passed and Gov. Perry signed legislation to allow local police departments to write tickets instead of make arrests for DWLI, marijuana possession, and several other petty Class B offenses. Only a few agencies took the Lege up on that optional authority, though, and county jails and court dockets remain stuffed with these low-level, non-violent offenders. So reducing penalties for those two Class Bs is a logical next step, as the House County Affairs discussed during an interim committee hearing on the topic earlier this year.

Unlike the feds, Texas' budget must balance. Any claim to cut taxes will prove a mare's nest without a correspondent reduction in spending in a long-term sustainable way. That's why property-tax relief through the school districts can't be certain in light of the surely soon-to-be-coming court verdict on school finance. The state has little wiggle room to spend less on healthcare. And pols have promised to spend more, not less, on transportation and border security. After baseline reductions in 2003 and 2011, there's not a lot of fat left to cut, particularly that would impact property taxes.

By changing state policies to reduce county jail costs, the 84th Legislature could deliver real, not just temporary or superficial, local property-tax relief, cutting costs on a big-ticket item that affects every Texas county. I can't think of a quicker, more certain way the Lege could reduce upward pressure on local property taxes given the practical constraints imposed by law and politics on the state budget.


Anonymous said...

I can't speak for other counties but in Harris County, jail costs don't drive the property taxes up very much at all compared to other taxing entities. To show the comparison, my MUD taxes alone were 75% as much as my total county tax bill that includes all sorts of community college, hospital, flood control and other line items (less than half going to the county proper); senior citizens paying a whooping $100 or so for the first couple hundred grand in valuation. The school taxes were the killer coming in at over twice the amount in other county taxes.

Given those actual costs, I know most residents would be far more willing to add a couple hundred bucks to double jail capacity and that is in the largest county in the state for incarceration according to some.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"most residents would be far more willing to add a couple hundred bucks to double jail capacity"

If that were true, 1:29, voters wouldn't have rejected jail expansion the first time around. Instead, voters rejected it until they scaled the project back to only expanding intake.

Anonymous said...

Locally, they were rejected not as a capacity issue but county residents being told that the city was saving money at their expense; I was at various meetings where this was loudly said and it drove voters crazy. For the most part, they believe that any increases in bonds or taxes will be frittered away on other things, not additional jail capacity, though a sizable enough portion from the other side of the political spectrum think it will help get drug laws amended or reduce the willingness to warehouse folks (been to a few of those meetings too).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:17, that's revisionist history. In reality, they could only get voters support for renovations the second time around by not calling it a jail and promising they wouldn't increase capacity. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

Anonymous said...

Why are we incarcerating Americans that have not committed murder or any other serious crime?

Who were the accusers? The STATE is not a witness, the STATE can not talk or write. The STATE is COMMERCIAL.

We do not need more prisons. We need a way to rehabilitate those that have done wrong by the people.
To teach those that have not been taught.

Anonymous said...

Can someone answer the following question for me:

Where county jails house low level offenders arrested by city law enforcement, do cities pay the county for daily incarceration of those offenders?

I have been told that county jails have financial incentive to house city low level offenders. Can anyone verify this?

Anonymous said...

Anon 12/15/2014 08:31:00 PM,
In areas like Harris County where the city has its own jail, the county only holds prisoners charged with crimes of a higher level (Class B and above) or by officers employed by the county. This will change when the joint booking facility opens, the city paying an agreed upon amount to help build the facility and a set diem per day for each city prisoner held. Many cities have a similar arrangement with their host counties to do something similar.

Anon 12/15/2014 04:35:00 PM,
few can agree what constitutes a "serious" crime but our penal code is the law governing penalties for specific crimes. Each statute and revision was voted on by our duly elected representatives, a great many people thinking we need to put criminals away for longer periods of time. There are trends to decriminalize drugs but given historical precedent, if that happens, local DA's will just change which charges suspects are allowed to plea to, the days of dismissing everything for the plea on the possession charge tossed out the window.

As Grits might point out, efforts to reduce recidivism often fall short when employers refuse to hire ex-cons, apartment complexes refuse to rent to them, and their conditions of release are so difficult to comply with that it becomes a never ending cycle. If you have workable ideas, the legislature is about to convene so avail yourself of the process and provide some alternatives.

Anonymous said...

Well what doesn't work is when rich people and pro sports players get probation and a poor person gets 15 to 20 years for the same offense. Parole is broken from top to bottom a cesspool of corruption starting with the board. Once again if the family does not have enough money, the parolee will be back in prison. Look at the North Texas and Dallas area. Go into the parole offices and just sit. This is what you will hear "Girl I can't believe you put that on Facebook" that is behind the locked doors where the employees are, not the parolees. No professional standards at all. The parole board has two standards, if you are able to help a parolee and tell the board, they will not release them or if they do, no one can meet the requirements unless they are millionaires (Gatesville Board). Those aftercare programs are full of corruption and no useful purpose at all. The state would be better off spending the money on vocational training. People that are forced to go into a program are resentful and is a total waste. Provide that type of program when they first go in to prison. Stop those half-way house contracts. Gateway Program is one big cesspool also. FRAUD, FRAUD, more Fraud. Half-way houses, a criminal operation!