The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Local News

September 19, 2010

TDCJ’s vehicle lot reflects budget plight

HUNTSVILLE — A piece of fallout from the looming estimated $18 billion state budget shortfall sits in an abandoned stadium next to the oldest prison in Texas.

Dozens of disabled cars, pickups and vans used by the state prison system are parked on the grounds of the crumbling arena that for generations hosted the annual prison rodeo at the Huntsville Unit, a Texas prison since 1849. Ironically, a change in state spending priorities that favored new prisons over old rodeos forced the rodeo’s demise in 1986, ending a tradition.

So now, with about one-third of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s 2,300-vehicle fleet eligible for retirement, the vehicles wait for a possible trip to the inmate-staffed auto shop across the street from the decomposing stadium to maybe squeeze more miles from them or be scavenged for parts because the state can afford to buy only a few new cars and trucks and buses.

Money for vehicle purchases in the agency’s current biennial budget, trimmed by 25 percent to $7.5 million, is merely a blip — but a visible one — in the overall operation of the agency, which requested $6.55 billion for 2012-2013.

That’s part of a state budget — which totaled $182 billion in the current two-year cycle — coming under scrutiny when the Legislature convenes in January.

State agencies like the Department of Criminal Justice already are bracing for an ax and the budget shortfall has become an issue in the governor’s race, where incumbent Republican Rick Perry is looking for voters to send him to a third full term. Democratic challenger Bill White, Houston’s former mayor, says irresponsible policies and spending under Perry have led to the money gap.

Neither man, though, is specific in how he plans to deal with a shortfall. Both say education and public safety — where prisons fit in — are spending priorities.

“Certainly expenditures of all departments and agencies would be scrutinized, identified for savings,” White said. “I have not done all of the investigation of it.”

Perry has acknowledged the shortfall but says he wants to see the official estimate of incoming revenues, expected in January, before discussing solutions.

The Texas Constitution tightly restricts government borrowing so lawmakers will have to make up for any shortfall by cutting government programs and services, raising taxes and fees or other minor methods.

At the criminal justice agency, its $6.55 billion request becomes $5.83 billion under a 95 percent budget mandate from the governor’s office and the legislative budget board. At the same time, the department is seeking exceptions allowed under the current budget to “maintain current operational levels and policy initiatives,” according to its legislative appropriation request unveiled last month.

The exceptions also would cover more than $59 million in pay raises lawmakers approved for TDCJ employees in their last session.

Failure to provide money for exceptions would cut almost 1,900 prison workers, mean 600 fewer offenders would receive substance abuse treatment, eliminate some 500 contract beds, boost caseloads for parole and probation officers, eliminate almost 1,500 probationers from residential treatment facilities, trim other substance abuse counseling and mental health services and lead to other significant reductions in core functions, the agency warned.

“In the last few years, we have expanded a number of treatment programs, and prison diversion initiatives, and it is critical to the effectiveness of TDCJ that we be able to continue those efforts,” said Brad Livingston, executive director of the agency.

The department also said the impact of not providing the money likely would increase recidivism, cause significant growth in the inmate population and negatively impact both supervision of parolees and probationers and the security within penitentiaries.

Texas has the nation’s second-largest prison system, incarcerating more than 150,000 inmates in more than 100 prisons. Another 81,000-plus people are under active parole supervision along with 2,400 in intermediate sanction facilities and 1,600 in halfway houses. Added to that are more than 423,000 people on direct, indirect or pretrial probation.

The agency took its lumps in 2003 when a state budget crunch forced hundreds of job losses.

“I think if nothing else, looking back at 2003, that shows what we will be looking at,” spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said. “The scenario we predicted happened.

“We reduced our treatment programs, we had to lay off employees, and as a result our population immediately began to increase. We know what would happen because we’ve seen it happen.”

Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus also asked state agencies to submit scenarios for an additional 10 percent budget cut over the next two years.

TDCJ said implementing that would “have an overwhelming impact on all core agency operations.” Among other things, some 4,700 employees would lose their jobs — 3,400 from the correctional and parole staff.

Back at the motor pool, agency cars typically are slated for replacement after 10 years or 200,000 miles, double the industry standard. Likewise, buses that carry prisoners around the system that sprawls throughout the state must reach 20 years or 600,000 miles, and agency 18-wheelers that transport equipment and supplies, like food, can’t be considered exhausted until they reach 1 million miles or 20 years — again, double industry standards.

Some 800 of the 2,300 vehicles in the fleet have reached the limits. But with the $2.5 million available this budget year for replacements, depending on prices and models, only 30 to 40 will be replaced.

“Vehicles that we’re using are only going to accrue more miles,” Lyons said.

 

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