If we must cut the budget, let’s be smart about it

The Trib remembers the last time the state of Texas had a huge budget hole, and how it made things worse in its attempt to deal with it.

For some, it’s not too early to fret that lawmakers will balance the budget in 2011 by doing what they did seven years ago, the last time it was this bad. “Well, they cut Medicaid and CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program), and otherwise they pretty much balanced it on the backs of other people,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a former analyst at the Comptroller’s office and now a budget analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “The Medicaid and CHIP cuts — I mean, that is hundreds of thousands of children losing healthcare.”

A CPPP analysis of the 2004-2005 budget found that decisions in 2003 rendered approximately 350,000 children and adults ineligible for Medicaid services that they would have qualified for in 2005 had policies remained unchanged. The study also concluded that nearly $4 billion in federal Medicaid dollars destined for Texas was “left on the table” after the state failed to allocate the necessary amount in general revenue funding to qualify for the federal aid.

Adding insult to injury, the cuts may not have had the impact on the budget that some believe. “Let me say this, and it’s not an overstatement: Many of the savings that were promised [in 2003] were not realized,” says former State Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, who chaired the House Select Committee on Health Care expenditures before she retired in 2007. “So if I had one warning for this [upcoming] Legislature, it would be: Go for substance, not window dressing.”

Along those lines, another veteran of that session, former State Rep. Ray Allen makes the case that the place to consider deeper cuts is the place that largely escaped such cuts in 2003: prisons.

In 2003, the state prison budget saw few budget cuts. Probation, parole and treatment programs were decimated. That decision triggered an immediate influx of new direct sentencing to prison by concerned judges whose concerns also led to a flood of technical probation revocations based upon their assessment that reduced supervision budgets would degrade local probation departments’ ability to adequately protect the public.

That 2003 budget cutting of probation, parole and treatment programs backfired.

Yes, the cuts helped balance the budget in 2003-4, but they led to significantly expanded spending in subsequent years in the most costly category of criminal justice spending–prison beds. 2003’s cuts saved nickels in that budget cycle, but forced future spending of millions.

An old, familiar saying expresses a phrase worth remembering: “Penny wise; pound foolish(referring to the British Pound Sterling).” The immediate urgency of a crisis should not be addressed without considering the long-term consequences which may follow.

In his piece, Allen refers to this Statesman op-ed by Ana Yanez Correa of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which notes that it’s prisons that’s the fattest part of the corrections budget anyway:

In 2007, lawmakers decided that continuing the status quo by building additional, costly facilities was no longer an option. Instead, they worked ardently in a bipartisan and historic effort to mandate “smart on crime” strategies that would tackle the root causes of prison overcrowding head-on — including stronger probation and parole structures and increased numbers of treatment beds to improve programming delivery.

These strategies have begun to deliver taxpayers a greater return on their investment while promoting a safer Texas. Indeed, despite the fact that 88 percent of Texas’ $2 billion corrections budget goes towards incarceration — while only 12 percent is dedicated to diversions — these alternatives to incarceration have saved more than $443 million through the rerouting of thousands of offenders from prison and into effective programming. The bottom line: fewer victims in the long term and more taxpayer savings.

This in a nutshell is the problem with across-the-board budget cuts, such as the five percent cut that Governor Perry, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, and Speaker Straus have mandated. It’s reflex over thought, and it fails to take into account the fact that some dollars are much better spent than others. What we need, and what we’ll get with new leadership for Texas, is an approach that prioritizes where cuts need to be and where they should be avoided. Otherwise, well, we shouldn’t be surprised by what we get, because we got it before just a few years ago. Thanks to Grits for the Ray Allen link.

UPDATE: And more from Grits.

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