January 25, 2007
Dewhurst's misplaced priorities

Yesterday, we discussed how there's $2.5 billion in the state budget for $4 billion worth of priorities, at least once you factor in the sacred and all-consuming property tax cuts. Today, Lt. Gov. Davis Dewhurst shows that he wants that money spent on the wrong things.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday that Texas needs to build prisons to hold 5,000 new beds, a view at odds with a major report key lawmakers will release next week that will stress treatment programs and prison alternatives.

"We respect the lieutenant governor, but we respectfully disagree with him on this one if he's talking about building maximum-security facilities," said Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, chairman of the House Corrections Committee.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, said Texas could ease crowded prisons and save money by increasing treatment options and returning fewer parolees to prison for minor infractions.

Even if some of Whitmire's suggestions for treating substance abusers are adopted, Dewhurst argues that the state still needs more prison space for a growing population.

"We haven't built any new prison beds in Texas for a number of years, and our population is exploding," Dewhurst said.

"I don't -- and the people of Texas don't -- want to have dangerous people on our streets, and that's what we're going to prevent. I've been looking at a number of 4,000 to 5,000" over the next four years, he said.

That projection is in line with the budget request by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which wants to add three prisons to hold 5,000 prisoners. That would cost $440 million just for construction, a state expense opposed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which advocates limited government.

"We've suggested a number of reforms in terms of probation, parole and sentencing. By adopting those, we would certainly not need more beds," said Marc Levin, director of the foundation's Center for Effective Justice.

That's an awful lot of money to spend on something for which there's a much cheaper and more effective alternative, and for which there's no guarantee that adequate staffing resources would be available. I'll save us all a little time by just pointing you to Grits for Breakfast, which debunks Dewhurst's facile population argument, among other things. If this is how Dewhurst thinks we should be spending the limited funds that are not already dedicated to other things, we're in for a bumpy ride this session.

I'm going to keep harping on this because there's one priority competing for those dollars that already has sufficient funds allocated for it, if only our mulish state leaders would let them be spent. I am of course talking about CHIP.

"Back in 2003, you heard that we had a $10 billion deficit and the state of Texas couldn't afford to pay for things like health insurance," said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. "Now, here we are four years later with a $14.1 billion surplus. There is no excuse."

Damn straight. It's very simple - if we can't fund CHIP now when we have the money, then it's just not something that the Perry/Craddick/Dewhurst threesome cares about. If the former two want to make a nod towards bipartisan reconciliation, this would be one relatively simple yet still meaningful way they could do it. If not, well, then it's game on, and we'll accept the gift of the same effective campaign cudgel that we wielded last year.

BOR has more on yesterday's CHIP press conference, including some embedded video. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 25, 2007 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack

David Dewhurst surely aspires to be governor. A Republican in Texas does not become governor by suggesting we do not need more prisons. Indeed, we could eliminate CHIPS altogether, but continue to build prisons and I suspect most Texan voters would be just fine with that, or at least enough to guarantee a win for the Republican. It's pandering, but hey - he's running for office.

Posted by: Dennis on January 25, 2007 5:00 PM

Dear Charles, Thank you so much. And the same to Grits for Breakfast and Rep. Garnet Coleman. The kids you all may save with health care are so much more important than Texas becoming the biggest prison state in the world.

Little Brothers and Sisters...

Not Big Brother.

Posted by: Support Science to Reverse Global Warming, which Al Gore says is still possible on January 25, 2007 8:49 PM

CHIP has to be the #1 legislative priority. Once CHIP is fully funded, we can talk about other funding needs. But until CHIP is fully funded, all else will have to wait.

Posted by: el_longhorn on January 26, 2007 2:15 PM