Statewide, the Legislature wrapped debt to pay for new prisons into a larger, more innocuous set of bond proposals that goes before voters Nov. 6. Reported the Austin Statesman (“State asks voters for $1 billion in bonds for construction, repairs,” Oct. 8), “The most costly item in Proposition 4 would be $233 million for three new minimum- to medium-security prisons. Also included is $28 million for one new facility and renovations at the Texas Youth Commission.”
While new prisons might have been vulnerable in a stand-alone vote, linking the debt to parks spending and funds aimed at the mentally retarded probably make these bonds a shoo-in. Personally I believe such disparate projects should be put before the voters individually. I shouldn’t have to vote for three unnecessary prisons to approve support for parks and the developmentally disabled, but that’s the Janus-faced option the Legislature has placed in front of us.
In Harris County, reported the Houston Chronicle last week (“Massive bond could feed Harris’ appetite for construction,” Oct. 4), voters will decide whether to approve more than a half billion dollars in new debt to expand jail capacity. Bonds would pay for a new central processing center for the jail ($213 million, plus $32 million from the city), to renovate the old jail to become a juvenile detention center ($115 million), to pay for a new morgue and crime lab building ($100 million) and to build a new family law center ($90 million). The combined new cost including staffing will boost jail operations from 16% to 25% of the county budget and require new taxes. (Of course, that assumes it’s even possible to find enough guards to staff a new jail.)
God knows, Houston needs a better crime lab, but Harris County officials lumped that critical item in with unnecessary law enforcement pork that voters should reject. Detect a pattern? One up or down vote. If voters want to fix the crime lab, they must also agree to building jail space Harris County can’t afford or properly staff.
Tough choice. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to approve unnecessary projects in order to fund stuff we actually need, but we’re not in that world. I’m not sure yet which way I want to go with this. I fear that if these things get voted down, the bad parts will get sent back in a future referendum, while the good stuff may languish. I’m going to have to give this some more thought.