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Averitt's Out. Now What?

The next senator from SD-22 could be the incumbent, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, Republican challenger Darren Yancy, or a Republican or Democrat whose name is not on the ballot.

The next senator from SD-22 could be the incumbent, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, Republican challenger Darren Yancy, or a Republican or Democrat whose name is not on the ballot.

It's strange, but it's true.

Averitt shocked fellow Republicans — including his friends and staffers — by telling the Waco Tribune-Herald that he was withdrawing his bid for reelection. The deadline for candidates to file has passed, as has the deadline for candidates to get off the ballot.

Darren Yancy, a Burleson insurance exec who was challenging incumbent in the GOP primary, looks to be the most likely beneficiary. But just because it looks that way doesn't make it so. And Averitt's withdrawal could open the door for the Democrats, who don't have a candidate in the race but might get a chance to add one.

According to officials with the Texas Secretary of State, it's too late for Averitt to take his name off the ballot. If Yancy wins the primary, he'll be the only major party candidate in the race, and as such, would be the probable winner in November's election. No Democrats filed to run, and although there are two Libertarians vying for that SD-22 seat, no Libertarian has ever won a seat in the Texas Legislature.

There's another possible outcome: If Averitt wins the primary — as incumbents generally do — and then quits, Republican Party officials can choose a candidate to replace him. But his departure opens a door for the Democrats. If he's off the ballot and neither of the major parties has a candidate, both of them — the Republicans and the Democrats — get to add a nominee for the race. What is now on track to be a Republican race would suddenly be competitive, at least on paper.

If Yancy wins in March, the Democrats don't get to play. Averitt goes home, Yancy runs in November against a Libertarian, and that's that. And if you're playing geographic politics here and not partisan politics, that would move what has been a Waco seat for years and years to a Fort Worth suburb.

Yancy, who lives in Burleson, has an insurance agency and spent his professional life in sales and marketing. He grew up in Lubbock and in Euless, went to the University of Texas at Arlington, and he and his wife have four kids. He has described himself at local forums as "a family man, a Christian conservative, a fiscal conservative"… and says "the reason I got into this race, his name is Barack Hussein Obama."

Averitt, a Baylor grad, came to the Legislature as an aide to then-Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco. He ran for the House in 1992 and served there until Sibley retired, winning his former boss' seat in 2002. He's chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, an expert on water policy, and serves on a number of other key committees, including Finance, Education, and Business & Commerce. In real life, he's a CPA and tax consultant. He's generally considered a moderate among Senate Republicans.

So here's the deal: If Averitt loses the primary, the seat probably goes to Yancy. And to Burleson. If Averitt wins the primary and then quits, Yancy would be out of the running and local Republican officials could choose a substitute for Averitt who could run in November. Local Democrats could also choose a candidate. And Waco might still have a chance. Several counties get to play, though. The district includes Bosque, Coryell, Ellis, Falls, Hill, Hood, Johnson, McLennan, Navarro, and Somervell counties.

None of this will have any meaningful effect on the partisan split in the Senate. It's a Republican seat now, and it's a Republican district. Even if the Democrats pull out a win, it wouldn't affect the majority in the Senate. Averitt is the second senator to bail this year; Democrat Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso decided in 2009 not to seek reelection. And he's the tenth incumbent lawmaker to opt out; eight House members, like Averitt and Shapleigh, want off their leashes.

By the way, Averitt has said he won't run for reelection, and he cited health reasons."I have diabetes and high blood pressure, and my doctor has advised me that I am a walking heart attack," he said in a statement to the Waco paper that was passed along to other reporters. "While I have tried to regulate my health with diet, exercise and medication, my doctor has unequivocally recommended that reducing stress is a key component of my treatment. My family and I thank you for your thoughts and prayers."

He could, for those same reasons, resign before his term ends next January. That could force a special election.

But that's another story.

Not a Game-Changer

In the first debate of this political season, Gov. Rick Perry didn't fall on his face. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison didn't, either. Each worked in the kinds of lines that please supporters without creating many new ones, but neither landed a knockout punch. For a politician with a reputation to protect, that's the description of a win.

If the third candidate on the Denton stage didn't win some new fans, or votes, Debra Medina at least held her own in her first and perhaps only debate with the two Republican heavyweights. Medina cast Hutchison and Perry as insiders in federal and state governments that aren't working right for average Texans, touted her proposal for ending property and business margin taxes (to be replaced by higher sales taxes she thinks would be more fair), blasted their immigration policies. We even learned she doesn't pack a gun when she's in the grocery store, where it's illegal.

Each of the three claimed victory. The real winner, probably, was Medina, who doesn't have the money to advertise statewide or to travel as broadly and quickly as the other two Republicans in the race. Thursday night was her best chance yet to get in front of voters, and she hung in with the two more experienced professional pols.

She, like Hutchison, directed her fire at Perry, who was forced to defend himself on eminent domain and transportation, on budgets and taxes, and even on the economy he's been touting as his biggest achievement as the state's top elected official since 2000.

Perry didn't shoot much at Medina, but goaded Hutchison about her votes for rising federal spending and deficits, for her support for abortion rights secured by the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, and for being a creature of Washington (an attack echoed in an ad campaign he started on the day of the debates).

The Texas Debates were produced by KERA in partnership with CBS 11 (KTVT-TV) and TXA 21 (KTXA-TV), Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KUVN Univisión 23, Texas Association of Broadcasters (TAB), Texas State Network, and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Hutchison and Perry — but not Medina — have been invited to a Belo Corp. debate on January 29. The candidates for the Democratic nomination are still talking to potential debate sponsors and haven't yet agreed to anything. A full version of the debate is available on the sponsor's site, here.

Roots

On March 2, four Republicans are vying to determine which one of them will get the chance to reclaim Diana Maldonado's Texas House seat for the GOP. But if candidate John Gordon, a local Republican activist, has his way, there will be just three.

The self-styled “Father of the Williamson County Republican Party” filed suit against fellow primary candidate Alyssa Eacono and Williamson County Republican Chair Bill Fairbrother, charging Eacono does not meet the minimum six-month residency requirement to file for office in Williamson County.

“She’s lived in Travis County for 17 years and she tried to sneak into this county and forgot where the district lines were,” Gordon said, “You would expect a person who wants to represent 200,010 population would have at least lived here.”

Eacono currently serves as chief of staff for TX Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas. She didn't return calls for this report.

When asked if he had reason to doubt Eacono’s residency, Fairbrother said he had no position on the matter and would cooperate fully in the legal proceedings.

Maldonado won the seat in 2008 after Republican incumbent Mike Krusee left office. Fairbrother said he perceives the Round Rock Democrat as vulnerable because she won less than 50 percent of the vote and has had a “lackluster” record in office.

Gordon also had redistricting on his mind. He said was running because he didn’t want “a liberal socialist Democrat who favors abortion leading the redistricting efforts.” Redistricting was also on his mind: “To make sure we have fair redistricting, it's very important for political reasons that we take the seat back in the Republican column where it belongs.”

Besides Gordon and Eacono, the other candidates in the Republican primary are

Stephen Casey, lawyer and father of five, and former legislative staffer and small-business owner Larry Gonzales.

— Morgan Smith

Traffic Jam

Why wasn’t transportation funding listed in the Speaker Joe Straus’ interim charges for the House Transportation Committee? They were in Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s charges to its Senate counterpart.

“Obviously, it’s not a priority,” joked House committee chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, during a panel discussion on transportation funding at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual policy orientation on Thursday.

Actually, Pickett said, its absence may be due to the fact that Straus knew he had already committed to making it a priority ahead of the interim charges announcement.

Pickett is teaming up with Senate Transportation Committee chairman Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, to hold joint hearings that will address the issue. The first of these will be held on February 1 in Austin.

“It’s certainly a priority for Sen. Carona,” says Senate committee director Steven Polunsky of transportation funding.

Pickett says the possibility still exists that a House select committee could be created to address the issue, which might provide some focus on what exactly the issue is. “We still don’t have a consensus of a crisis,” Pickett says.

Polunsky disagrees. “I think the crisis is well defined,” he says, pointing to the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report that quantifies the costs of congestion. Polunsky says increasing population levels are overburdening roads in all regions — urban and rural. “You’ve got hard statistical data and you’ve got anecdotes all over the place,” he says.

— Reeve Hamilton

One Man's Answer

There’s a forecast for change in the Sunset Advisory Commission.

As the newly appointed vice chair, Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, says he wants to move the commission away from making policy decisions and back to its original purpose: eliminating waste in state agencies.

The process is “meant to be very simplistic,” Bonnen says. The commission reviews state agencies and decides if they should change practices or shut down, and most agencies get reviewed every 12 years. While initially intended to find ways of increasing efficiency, sunset bills often become major policy fights in the capitol.

Bonnen says most legislators are eager to return to the original intent of the bills. “It’s an opinion and a feeling I continually hear from colleagues,” he said.

An example: Last session’s review of the Texas Department of Transportation ended in chaos. While legislators initially promised wide-sweeping reforms, the fighting became so contentious that agency ultimately wound up in a safety net bill with virtually no changes.

What happened was “no one’s fault,” Bonnen said, but shows a flaw in the current approach to Sunset.

He hopes legislators will file policy bills separately from the sunset bills, and that those who want to tackle major problems in state agencies won’t wait for sunset legislation to do so.

With the controversies over air quality regulations, reviewing the Texas Commission on Environmental will undoubtedly lead to some policy debates.

That’s fine, Bonnen says, just keep file those debates in other bills.

“Changing the policy direction of an agency should be a viable option every legislative session,” Bonnen says.

— Abby Rapoport

Lousy Grades on Charters

Texas is getting slammed in two new studies from pro-charter school groups.

Most damning is the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which awarded Texas a scant 101 out of 208 points. The biggest flaw came from Texas’ funding system for charter schools. While the state provides a certain amount of funding per pupil, it often falls short of the amount a traditional public school would get. Then there are facilities and infrastructures, which the charter schools must fund on their own.

“All the dollars should follow that child to that school,” said Todd Ziebarth, the vice president for policy at the alliance, on a media conference call.

Charters are more than willing to discuss the funding disadvantages they face compared with schools in districts.

“We’re basically fundraising the difference,” says Ryan Dolibois, a spokesman for the high-performing YES Prep charter schools in Houston.

The state’s cap on charters — which incidentally does not limit the number of schools, but rather the number of groups that can run schools — also worked against Texas' score.

Attacks came, too, from the Center for Education Reform, which slammed Texas in its Annual Survey of America’s Charter Schools for the state's 40,000-person waiting list,.

The alliance report gave the state extra credit for allowing a variety of types of charter schools and giving the schools relative autonomy.

Ziebarth believes the Race to the Top federal grant program will encourage states to address their charter system, which will give preferences to states that encourage charter schools. But since Gov. Rick Perry this week announced Texas will not compete in the program, that probably won’t be the number one incentive around here.

— Abby Rapoport

Paying for Crime

Criminal justice gurus want some lawmakers to stay away from the state’s prison budgets.

State leaders are advising department heads to look for ways to trim down their budgets, but dipping into the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Texas Youth Commission funds could spell disaster for Texas’ improving corrections system. (They might be left off the list of things to cut anyway; state leaders have said they'll leave some agencies out.)

Lawmakers in 2003 were faced with a $10 billion budget shortfall and remedied the situation by making budget cuts to several departments, including corrections. The idea shouldn’t even be entertained this time around, said Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice.

“If we repeat what we did in 2003 and just cut probation, parole and in-prison treatment we will be setting ourselves up for another disaster,” he said at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 8th Annual Policy Orientation in Austin.

Texas already spends more than most states on corrections — about $ 3 billion annually, or 8.6 percent of the general fund. According to Adam Gelb, the director of the Pew Chartable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, other states average about 7 percent. Most of Texas’ spending goes directly to housing, guarding and caring for inmates, but any cuts could also jeopardize post-confinement supervision, mainly probation and parole services.

“We know that if prison costs stay the same and we take a 2.5 percent cut in the corrections budget that will be a 43 percent cut in probation and parole, which means we won’t have the supervision and treatment that we need to prevent crime,” said Levin.

The cost to house an inmate is about $42 a day, about 15 times more than it costs the state to supervise a person on probation, said Gelb. There are currently about 158,000 inmates in the 112 state-run correctional facilities. But even if budget cuts are made it won’t mean dangerous felons would be sprung early, said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“We have to have sufficient money to lock up people that need to be locked up — murderers, rapists, child molesters — for a very long time. We’ll never compromise on that,” he said. “But to get that, has anyone ever thought of looking at our 112 locations and see than one or two of them are not efficient?”

The state-run facility in Mineral Wells, where contraband can literally “be thrown over a wall in to a (recreation) yard,” is an example of a drain on state funds, he said.

Also at stake is funding for mental health services, which Whitmire said goes hand-in-hand with incarceration rates. About 32,000 inmates currently locked up were in some sort of mental health program before, he said.

“But because of the 2003 budget cuts where we did away with community mental health services they got off their (prescription) drugs, they got away from their counseling,” he said. “They have a bad day at no fault of their own, they have an altercation with their families (or) their neighbors and law enforcement is called they are in the criminal justice system.”

Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, the chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee, said tweaking even minor details could mean big money. He advocated for a photo ID for former inmates upon their release to help them land jobs, and nighttime meetings with probation officers to help them stay employed.

“If we could reduce recidivism by just 3 percent we would kick the ball completely over the goal post,” he said. “It took three years to get that job. After all you are an ex-con. Now you are going to have to give up a day of work to go see your parole officer? Could that not be done at night?”

— Julian Aguilar

What's in a Name (on a Shirt)?

Childhood rebellion isn’t what it once was. A two-year battle over the Waxahachie Independent School District’s dress code ended this week when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the school was within its rights to forbid students from wearing t-shirts with words on them, unless those words showed school spirit.

Liberty Legal Institute, which represented the student and his family, says that court changed precedent by drawing on a Supreme Court case dealing with burning draft cards, U.S. vs. O’Brien, rather than the court case normally associated with school speech issues.

According to Kelly Shackelford, the chief counsel for the institute, O’Brien normally applies to issues of restricted speech, like pornography and nude dancing. Tinker v. Des Moines, the case normally used, allows students to engage in free speech so long as it does not disrupt classroom learning.

“They’re changing that standard,” he complains.

The institute, which describes itself as a “more conservative ACLU,” is pursuing other cases with a similar bent, on behalf of students forbidden from distributing religious material or writing “Merry Christmas” to soldiers.

Until the Supreme Court hears one of the cases, Shackelford says, “millions and millions of kids are losing basic constitutional rights” as a result of the Waxahachie decision.

“What’s clearly going on here is there are courts below the Supreme Court that are trying to change the law,” Shackelford says.

It's a conservative group, but they were defending a liberal shirt, one promoting Democrat John Edwards bid for president in 2008.

— Abby Rapoport

Flotsam & Jetsam

State agencies will soon get a letter from the three hotshots in the Pink Building —the Guv, the Lite Guv, and the Speaker — asking them to figure out how they'd cut up to five percent from their budgets in the current fiscal year and the next one. The problem is that sales tax revenues are in the tank, relative to where they were a year ago. It would be better — but not enough — if the numbers were merely flat. But the comptroller based her estimate of state revenue on growing sales tax numbers. Every month they drop, or remain flat, puts state revenue that much further from her projections. And since the the budget is supposed to balance, Rick Perry, David Dewhurst and Joe Straus are going to ask agencies to start figuring out how to cut back.

That letter will likely skip some agencies — in education and prisons, for instance. Others will be asked for options — i.e., what would a one percent cut look like? Two percent? Five percent? — so budgeteers can make decisions about what can get cut and where. Straus says the cuts will amount to about $1 billion. That's just a fraction of the expected shortfall, but it's a start. Lawmakers are studying budget and other state finance issues now and will try to close the gap between the money they've got and the programs they want to fund when they meet in regular session a year from now.

David Swinford, R-Dumas, wants Victor Leal to take his place in the Texas House. Swinford endorsed Leal over Walter Price in the GOP primary next month. Swinford said last month that he wouldn't seek another term in the Legislature. The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Abel Bosquez and Libertarian James Hudspeth in November.

• Pollsters working in West Texas found a nest of Rick Perry support. In U.S. Rep. Michael Conaway's district (Odessa, Midland, San Angelo, etc.), Perry leads Kay Bailey Hutchison by 19 points. That survey was done last week by pollster John McLaughlin, who's working for Al Cowan, one of Conaway's two GOP primary opponents. Some numbers: 45 percent Perry, 26 percent Hutchison. If you throw out leans and "probables", it's 24-12 in Perry's favor. It was a teslephone poll, 300 people, MOE +/-5.6 percent. They didn't include Debra Medina in that survey.

Political People and Their Moves

House Speaker Joe Straus named Denise Davis his new chief of staff and said former Rep. Clyde Alexander, who had held that post, will become a senior advisor. Davis had been the House Parliamentarian, both for Straus, and for a time before that, for former Speaker Tom Craddick. Straus hasn't picked a parliamentarian yet. The hottest rumor is that Gordon Johnson, a lobbyist and Straus advisor, is the frontrunner; a spokeswoman for the speaker says no decision has been made. But it would make for a circular change, and nobody will have to buy a desk or a new stapler: Davis to Alexander's office and Johnson to Davis' office. Alexander has already said he'll set up an office in Johnson's office next to the Capitol.

While we're here, Straus created several select committees and staffed them up. Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, was appointed chairman of the House Select Committee on Emergency Preparedness, with Rep. Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, as his vice-chair. On the Select Committee on Federal Legislation, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, will serve as chair and vice-chair respectively. Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, will serve as chair for the Select Committee on Fiscal Stability and Rep. Sylvester Turner, R-Houston, will serve as vice-chair. Finally, Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, was appointed chairman of the House Select Committee on Government Efficiency and Accountability and Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, was appointed vice-chairman.

Quotes of the Week

U.S. Sen./gubernatorial candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison, quoted by the Associated Press: "The gloves are off. I have been stuck doing what I said I would do in Washington. I knew it would be a disadvantage in the campaign, but I did what I had to do and what was right for Texas."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina on the need to protect gun rights and keep away the federal government: "If our leadership understood the corruption of man and the inclinations of sin and the desire to do harm, they would say, 'If you want to be safe and secure, buy a gun, learn to use it, keep it with you.' That's the way we protect ourselves and our neighbors."

Strategist Mark McKinnon on Debra Medina's bid for governor: "At the end of the day, voters, even really angry voters, don't want to waste their votes."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Farouk Shami, explaining his amorphous religious identification to the Austin American-Statesman: "My religion is American ... I'm a Muslim Quaker. Have you ever heard of that?"

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, imagining the conversation that will arise in a legislative session marked by a tight budget and a partisan redistricting debate: "'Can I have some money?' 'No — and I hate you.'"

Rep. Rob Eissler, R-Woodlands, on why he supported the Gov. Rick Perry's decision not to apply for federal Race to the Top grants: "The two things I worry about in education are fads and feds, and this combines both."

Lubbock County Republican Chair Chris Winn on ESPN commentator Craig James' bid for Senate: "Is this serious? There are far more qualified, experienced public servants... I'd run Mike Leach for Senate before I'd run Craig James."

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson on including Tea Party activists in the Republican Party: "You want to get the folks inside the tent, as opposed to outside the tent, urinating relative to the tent."

 


Texas Weekly's Op-Ed

The 2010 Agenda: Higher Education

“Massification” and democratization of higher education are terms you don’t frequently hear in the U.S., but they’re quite commonly used in countries across the world. Nations ranging from Korea to Jordan to Chile increasingly recognize that their participation in the global economy of the 21st century will require educating more of their citizens to a higher level, and public policies and funding are targeted toward building higher education capacity.

In the United Kingdom and Australia, for example, there is a growing effort to broaden higher education participation well beyond the students served by historically elite universities. Enormous expansion of university capacities in India and China is driving the explosive growth of those economies; at the same time, it is reducing the flow of international students, many of them in science and technology fields, to U.S. universities and eventually the U.S. workplace.

U.S. higher education has also begun to focus greater attention on educating a broader population, recognizing that our country will not be able to compete globally without a better educated workforce. Specific targets for increasing the percentage of the U.S. population that must complete at least a bachelor’s degree have been proposed by educators, corporate leaders and public officials, including the President. Given current population demographics, there is growing recognition that these targets can only be achieved if universities enroll and graduate students from groups (especially Hispanics and African Americans) who have historically been underrepresented in U.S. higher education.

In Texas, this same 21st century workforce competitiveness theme has been promoted through an initiative called “Closing the Gaps.” Ten years ago, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) set targets for increasing the number of Texans who participate and graduate from the state’s universities. The THECB also recognized that achieving these goals in the context of the state’s rapidly changing demographics would require specific efforts to increase the participation and success of Hispanics and African Americans who continue to be underrepresented on Texas university campuses, and specific targets were set for them.

One curious aspect of the “Closing the Gaps” conversation is how little it has been associated with another and more recent Texas initiative to promote the development of additional national research (“Tier One”) universities in the state. Although both these higher education initiatives claim to be designed to help Texas become a more competitive player in the 21st century global economy, there appears to be little or no connection between the two. In fact, a commitment to educating large numbers of low-income and minority students is viewed as incompatible with the quest for excellence expected of a “Tier One” university. In other words, there is a widespread assumption that all universities must make a choice between access and excellence in defining their institutional missions and planning their future development.

As president of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), one of the seven “Emerging Tier One” institutions designated by the Texas Legislature, I have often been told that seeking the excellence expected for “Tier One” status will require us to retreat from the strong student access and affordability commitments that UTEP has made during the past 20 years. Even our El Paso community’s pride in UTEP’s designation as one of the seven “Emerging Tier One” universities is tempered with concern that this Tier One quest may weaken our resolve to create educational opportunities for young people and working adults in this undereducated U.S.-Mexico border region. The concept of a Hispanic-majority “Tier One” university apparently goes well beyond the limits of our collective imagination.

In Texas — and indeed across the U.S. — higher education is locked in a traditional model better suited to the mid-20th century America than today. Demographics have shifted dramatically, driven largely by the rapid growth of the Hispanic population, and it’s time to recognize that low-income and minority students have every right to expect the same level of educational excellence experienced by their peers in more affluent settings. Texas’ future prosperity resides in these undereducated segments of our population. We literally cannot succeed without setting high expectations for them and fully developing their talents.

UTEP’s responsibility to its students and to the State of Texas is to demonstrate that a commitment to both access and excellence — to both “Closing the Gaps” and “Tier One” goals—can and must be achieved. We have been highly successful over the past 20 years in building research and doctoral program capacity while maintaining our strong access commitment to first-generation, low-income and mostly Hispanic students, who also happen to be highly talented. We intend to continue to build on that success to achieve our Tier One goal, for and with the UTEP students we serve, not in spite of them. They — and Texas — should expect nothing less.

Diana Natalicio has been president of The University of Texas at El Paso since 1988.

The 2010 Agenda: Criminal Justice

Asked to identify the biggest challenge for Texas' criminal justice policy in 2010 and beyond, it's hard not to consider the coming budget crunch as a potentially pivotal moment.

Projected revenue shortfalls have already led Lt. Governor David Dewhurst to suggest state agencies trim 2.5% from their budgets — at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, that would amount to $218 million in cuts over the next biennium. During the 82nd legislative session, the state may be forced to choose between continuing recent investments to strengthen probation (where most offenders are sentenced) and funding the state's vast prison system.

We're not alone, of course. Tax revenues are down in 44 states, at least 26 of which have cut corrections spending and at least 17 of which are closing prisons or reducing inmate populations. Corrections costs recently have expanded faster than any other portion of state budgets except Medicaid, driven largely by prison staffing and growing medical expenses from housing older, sicker inmates.

During the past two sessions, Texas lawmakers made a bipartisan investment involving hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen probation and parole supervision. Judges and probation officers have begun to use evidence-based interim sanctions instead of sending petty violators back to prison, and the result has been less crime and less cost.

But there's a risk that lawmakers in 2011 might feel compelled to scale back funding for treatment and diversion programming in response to shrinking budgets. That's what happened during the 2003 budget crisis, when Texas' probation, treatment and anti-recidivism programs were slashed to the bone in the face of budget shortfalls while prison populations grew at startling rates that seemed to defy crime trends.

By 2007 and 2009, facing dangerously understaffed prisons and projections that inmate population growth would require billions for new prison construction by 2012, Texas shifted course to make historic investments in treatment resources and prison diversion programs which have been widely credited for staving off new prison building costs and limited anticipated inmate-population growth through reduced recidivism. These programs have been such a great success (and will only fully roll out this spring) that it would be a mistake to shut them down or scale them back just as taxpayers begin to see a return on their investment.

Instead, it's time for the state to seriously consider closing one or more of the 112 prison units it currently operates. The inmate population trend is already headed in that direction. Just last summer, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) was able to eliminate contracts for 1,900 beds in four county jails because population loads had declined and they were no longer needed.

Cost per prisoner at TDCJ units varies widely. A handful of older units – some of them built in the 19th century, have per-prisoner costs up to twice as high as more modern facilities. Other units, like the one in Dalhart, suffer guard shortages so chronic they can't safely staff them. Those two facility categories seem like the logical places to start when considering which prison units to close.

Though staffing shortages have improved as the economy tanked, TDCJ is still more than 1,000 guards short systemwide so such cuts could likely be achieved without eliminating existing jobs, and with the added benefit of improving staffing and safety in other units.

By investing more in diversion strategies and expanding on successes from recent reforms to probation and parole, the state could actually close older, more expensive prison units — as we've seen in other states — and use those employees to bring other facilities up to adequate staffing.

In years past, when budget cuts were required, lawmakers shielded TDCJ's “institutional division” (which operates the prisons) from reductions, which meant cost savings instead had to come from treatment and probation programming. But if the state cut off funds for all the new diversion infrastructure created over the last two sessions, we wouldn't actually save money because that's what's kept the prison population in relative check, and the diversion programs are much cheaper than building more units to house low-level probation violators.

State leaders must figure out soon how to safely cut the corrections budget while preserving recent investments in treatment and anti-recidivism programs. They'll need a plan when crunch-time comes, and this time the option of closing prison units needs to be kept on the table.

Scott Henson writes the award-winning blog Grits for Breakfast, which focuses on Texas criminal justice politics and policy. He is a former journalist and political opposition researcher who's been active in criminal-justice reform politics for the past fifteen years.


Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 2, 18 January 2010. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2010 by Texas Tribune Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 716-8600 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 716-8611.

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