Sunday, July 30, 2017

Governor: DPS crime lab fees 'premature,' but that doesn't mean 'unnecessary'

Texas politicians love to talk about cutting budgets and reducing taxes, but they never want any of the services that money pays for to shrink. Or at least, that's Grits' takeaway from the governor's volteface on Friday, when Greg Abbott rescinded the Texas Department of Public Safety's move to charge law enforcement agencies discounted fees for crime-lab services. For decades, DPS provided such services for free to  jurisdictions without their own crime labs. (Lubbock PD is the biggest DPS crime-lab customer, if "customer" is the right word for somebody receiving a freebie.)

This blog has argued for some time that the demand for free-as-in-beer crime-lab services would continue to outpace capacity and that charging for services is the only way to reverse the dynamic. So Grits was unfazed by this news (although everyone was surprised by it). It would have caused a temporary disruption because the locals weren't given time to plan, but in the long run it's a necessary adjustment that would make the system more stable. After all, the rates locals were being asked to pay were still discounted - subsidized fractions of the full cost of those services which are borne en toto in jurisdictions that operate their own crime labs.

But law enforcement and prosecutors howled like scalded cats. While the prosecutors' association admitted that "DPS has long had the statutory authority to assess these fees," critics focused more on the lack of foreknowledge. According to TDCAA, this was a "last-minute change made behind closed doors as part of the final conference committee budget, which is why no one knew about it until after it was done," which is a fair criticism.

That said, let's be clear: Gov. Abbot has resolved nothing; he has only kicked the can down the road. From the SA Express-News:
Abbott said that despite a tight fiscal situation in Texas, it would be premature to contemplate charging law enforcement agencies a fee for using the DPS labs, according to a letter he sent to DPS Director Steven McCraw. 
“Under no circumstances will I allow the 13 crime labs that DPS operates across the state to be underfunded. However, I firmly believe it is premature to charge a fee at this time,” Abbott wrote the DPS.
So he's saying 1) the crime labs won't be underfunded, and 2) DPS cannot right now begin charging a fee, but it possibly could in the future ("premature" is very different from saying it's a bad idea). That doesn't mean they can't do so in the future when state money runs out sometime in FY 2019. The problem is, if DPS implements fees right now, they can charge discounted rates over the course of the biennium. If they must wait until the money runs out to begin charging fees, they'd have to charge the full cost in order to provide the services.

In the perhaps-more-likely alternative, the Legislative Budget Board could authorize the money and the Lege could re-up it in a supplemental budget in 2019, but they do have to cut the budget somewhere if they don't want to raise more money. They can't all be phantom, I-didn't-mean-it budget cuts.

The notion that the governor will not allow the crime labs to be underfunded is a fascinating statement because he already has! Not only did he sign the budget which included the fees, DPS crime labs needed a substantial increase to keep up with skyrocketing demand for forensic services. However, the fees they were authorized to collect only got them to the budget total they spent in the last biennium. That's insufficient given that DPS crime labs cannot control demand for their services - locals decide the agency's workload, with the cost all coming out of the state budget (if the fees are not implemented).

So if it's "premature" right now, when might we expect DPS to begin charging fees for crime-lab services? From the same Express-News story:
Earlier this year, the Legislature set aside nearly $63 million for operation of crime labs for the next two years, an amount Abbott said is enough to ensure that the facilities can operate at full capacity “well into the next biennium” without a fee. 
DPS said lawmakers gave the department authority to charge enough in fees to collect up to $11.5 million for forensic analysis to bring the department to its full authorized funding level of $74.5 million. Its budget for the previous biennium was $74.7 million, according to the department.
If one assumes DPS crime labs will spend at quicker rates than last biennium thanks to heightened demand, we can expect them to run out of money more or less right as the Legislature convenes in 2019. That makes Grits think the supplemental appropriation is more likely than implementing fees during this biennium.

But at some point state leaders are going to have to address the conundrum caused by this disconnect between demand for crime lab services and payment for them. Now that the fees are delayed, the better public policy would be to implement them as soon as practicable - Grits would suggest Sept. 1, 2018, so that agencies would have time to include the change in their budgets - but not to wait for another legislative cycle. Even charging discounted rates would reduce waste and unnecessary or redundant use of crime lab services.

Finally, it should be said that DPS finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The Lege cut their budget 4% but won't let them reduce any of the services they provide. In addition to this flip-flop, the agency was also forced to rescind a reduction in hours at drivers license centers as a result of the new budget. That's fine - nobody like longer lines at the DMV. But if DPS has less money, what is it currently doing that it's now allowed to cease? Not border security. Not crime lab freebies. Not drivers license operations. Should the cuts come from (non-border area) patrol? Narcotics enforcement? Where, exactly?

The new crime-lab fees were actually a smart-on-crime budget cut, adjusting the financial burden for forensic services so that they're partly borne by the agencies directly benefiting from them. It may have been ham-handedly implemented, and because of that a short-term delay may even be warranted. But state leaders should let DPS pull the trigger on new crime-lab fees sooner than later. The problems caused by unlimited demand outstripping finite capacity at DPS crime labs aren't going away.

MORE: The Fort Worth Star-Telegram offered up a similar position in an editorial which linked to this blog post.


Anonymous said...

Anything to reduce the number of criminal charges filed or number of prosecutions, huh? Once again that "smart on crime" phrase seems to amount to SOFT ON CRIME. How about the legislature just adequately fund the labs and work with local jurisdictions to keep up with the demand for forensic services? If there are chronic abusers of the laboratory service, I'm sure there are wise policy makers who can solve that problem without compromising public safety all across the state.

Steven Michael Seys said...

Under the "tough on crime" mindset, it's easy to get away with any crime, so long as there's a patsy for the cops and politicians to parade through the railroad station Texas calls criminal court.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:24, just go tell the "wise policy makers" at the Lege you want taxes raised to pay for more crime lab services. Let me know how that works out. Otherwise, the alternative to charging for services is rationing. That's not my preference, it's just an economic fact of life. Attributing it to liberalism or being soft on crime is foolish - somebody has to pay for your policy preferences if they include giving freebies to hundreds of local agencies.

In the meantime, what you're demonstrating is that tuff on crime is in reality unrestrained big government in a thinly veiled disguise. Folks in bigger jurisdictions already pay for crime lab services, but you want us to pay for Lubbock and other small agencies so they can, what, keep THEIR taxes low? Well, good for them, I suppose, but equity, basic economics, and common sense demand that they cover their own costs.

Anonymous said...

Current DPS practices attempt to ration laboratory services based upon offense type and category of laboratory test (see DPS's Physical Evidence Handbook). For example, in burglary cases, the number of submissions for DNA testing is limited to 2. For homicides, the number of samples that will be DNA tested is limited to 5 if "informative results" are obtained from among those 5. More samples will be tested if no "informative results" are obtained in the first 5 samples. But basically, testing will stop once the lab gets an "informative result" - meaning a result that is beneficial to the prosecution's theory of the crime. There are allowances for extenuating case circumstances, such as multiple perpetrator cases. But basically the effort is to test as few items as possible per case.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yup, 6:49, rationing began because the Lege doesn't pay as much for crime lab services as local agencies demand. There will be greater rationing on an even larger range of cases if DPS cannot charge to make up the shortfall in their budget.

So it's fine to call Grits "soft on crime" if it makes y'all feel better, but the dynamic I'm describing is already playing out in the real world. Crime labs aren't free. If the Lege won't fully pay and they won't make the locals pay, more aggressive rationing is the only remaining option.

Anonymous said...

Come on, Grits. Those of us who've been readers of your blog for some time all know that you're transparently in favor of less prosecution and less punishment for criminal offenders. This us against them argument that you're spinning out there pitting the cities against rural counties is just plain silly. If you don't like spending money on a crime lab in Travis County, then elect councilmen and commissioners whose views reflect your own... Oh wait, we are talking about Travis County here. LOL! The last time I checked rural taxpayers who fund the county sheriff's department and local police departments also pay state taxes which fund DPS. From its inception, DPS has been tasked with the responsibility of augmenting and assisting local law enforcement all across the state, especially in rural counties. The Texas Rangers routinely assist smaller departments which don't have the expertise and investigative resources that large metro police departments have. Do you think rural counties should pay part of the budget for the Texas Rangers? As far as traffic enforcement, DPS highway patrol also allocates more resources to rural areas than metro areas. Should the rural counties have to kick in extra for traffic enforcement by DPS because Houston, Dallas and San Antonio PD's have their own traffic enforcement divisions? Who says the budget for the DPS labs has to remain static? If enough legislators feel pressured by their local constituents to add additional funding to this important investigative resource, then I assure you that will happen. It's just a matter of priorities and politics. In fact, I think Abbott's action last Friday was likely a reaction to the outcry from rural (and in many instances conservative Republican)counties. I may be wrong but I feel like your SOFT ON CRIME plan to financially penalize smaller jurisdictions just because they don't have the resources to fund their own forensic labs is going to be a non-starter in this state for many years to come. This state is growing fast, both in terms of population and state revenue. Whether it's corrections, prisons, child protective services, or forensic crime labs, the legislature would be well served to figure out how to continue to adequately fund these necessary and essential state resources. It's not about big government. It's just a matter of keeping up with growth.

Anonymous said...

The presumptive customer base for DPS lab work is a Texas minus Dallas, Ft Worth, Houston, and San Antonio since they all have fee-for-service labs housed with county medical examiners. Those labs also receive many fee-for-service evidence submissions from surrounding counties. That is in addition to fees the smaller counties pay for autopsies performed in Texas cities that have medical examiners.
One has to wonder if a State medical examiner system in the beginning would have made things better or worse?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What in heaven's name are you talking about, 8:58? If Austin, Houston, Dallas, etc., all closed their crime labs and began using DPS, delays would run four or five years. If we're just taking these debates to Nonsense-Land, I see no use in participating. I'm talking about what's happening in the real world, not your fantasies or the blame-games you play in your head.

You are somehow pretending that I'M the one who underfunded DPS. I am not. DPS crime-lab services are already being rationed, as mentioned above, and I had nothing to do with the decision. Instead, I am the person suggesting how to maintain crime-lab services in a defunded environment, whereas under Greg Abbott's non-plan, money will run out three-quarters of the way through the biennium. In fact, even if the state covers the full fee amount with general revenue, DPS crime labs would STILL be underfunded because of increased requests from locals. To be clear, funding has increased significantly for DPS labs over the last decade or so, it's just that demand is increasing at a far greater rate.

Bottom line, the criminal justice system has not just been "keeping up with growth," it's been growing far faster than demand from population or crime rates could possibly justify. That's primarily IMO because local decision makers are unconstrained by cost considerations. So addressing those misaligned incentives must be part of right-sizing the system.

Anonymous said...

Abbott could pay for these services by diverting all those border security funds the Lege handed out like Halloween candy!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@1:21, which speaks to the next to last paragraph in my post.

He's Innocent said...

Oh Grits, I wish you'd add a like or dislike button to postings. Or direct response to other's posts. Some folks just beg to be responded to directly.

Anonymous said...

It is inaccurate to depict some of the smaller agencies in the state as getting a free ride from the state lab.

There are at least some agencies in the state (some of the medium-sized suburban ones) that already pay for DPS lab services; they have interlocal agreements and fund the salaries for positions at the lab. By the agreements, their submissions also typically go to the "front" of the line. It is unclear if these agencies will be included in the fee structure, but they got notified just like all of the other agencies.

Rough guesses are that for a medium-sized agency, the fees will be a low 6-figure annual cost. This may make things worse for DPS, because I would expect those agencies to withdraw from the agreements, cancel the positions at the state lab, and execute new agreements for regional multi agency labs, since the costs would probably eventually equal out. And DPS will then have fewer people to process evidence.

Anonymous said...

Just fund all state labs with money taken in by the revocation program, increasing those fees as needed so none of the "real" voters will be bothered. That seems to be the narrative some are selling, a bad idea for too many reasons to go into here.

Anonymous said...

It occurred to me last night that the principal takeaway from this controversy is this: legislators would be well advised to listen to their constituents a little more and read this blog a little less. I understand that when one goes to Austin, it's hip to immerse yourself into the liberal intelligentsia culture but that's a pretty dangerous mindset to adopt "back in the district." Public attitudes about criminal justice matters are especially fluid and volatile. When crime rates are low and people feel safe, crime doesn't really register as a priority on many public opinion polls. But let crime rates start to rise or let some parolee commit an especially heinous crime and voters start looking for someone to blame. At the end of the day, voters get extremely motivated when they begin to feel like their safety is being compromised. Thankfully, the views of Grits and the "smart on crime" crowd are still not anywhere close to being representative of the vast majority of the voting public in this very red state. The folks in the pink dome would be well advised to remember that. This was a pretty nice little reality check.

DLW said...

@5:33, you may or may not be right about what the "vast majority of the voting public" wants but their opinions become lukewarm to cool when they can see that it actually costs them something to be "tough of crime".

Back when I was Elected Prosecutor, the local Wednesday Club invited me to a question and answer regarding plea bargaining. Someone had the nice ladies all fired up about the concept and the meeting opened with hostility towards it. As they learned the statistics and the costs involved with trying every case, their stance either softened or completely disappeared.

This may be what Grits is trying to get across. People are tough and mean as hell when it doesn't cost them anything.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:33, for your own reality check, check out the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's editorial on this topic.

@4:34, I'll stipulate that agencies paying fees to get to the front of the DPS line are not getting a free ride, especially if you'll grant that the others are.

@2:45, what "revocation program" are you talking about?

Anonymous said...

Grits, I bet @2:45 is referring to the surcharge program as I've heard it called that elsewhere.