Cutting Red Meat

How about some progressive budget cuts for a change?
by and Published on
illustration by Ben Sargent

As Rahm Emanuel said, you don’t let a serious crisis go to waste. Republican state lawmakers will be taking that lesson to heart this session. They’re already sharpening their knives, ready to solve the budget crisis by carving deep into state government—and then, for good measure, taking the bleeding chunks and drowning them in the bathtub (to paraphrase small-government guru Grover Norquist). By doing so, lawmakers hope to solve two problems at once: Close the record $27 billion biennial budget gap, and kill the big-government programs that are cramping the lifestyle of every freedom-loving Texan, such as public schools, nursing homes and Medicaid.

Sure, Texas progressives are horrified at the impact this will have on the least fortunate, and for good reason. This might indeed be the time to close soup kitchens and just start arming the poor. But while we wait for the revolution, we thought we’d offer some modest suggestions for budget cuts to genuinely wasteful government spending, right-wing nanny-state programs and political slush funds.

Here we propose hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cuts without resorting to closing schools or taking food away from poor families. Critics might point out that these cuts hardly make a dent in the towering deficit, and of course they’d be right—but, hey, we didn’t get the state into this mess either! For the other $26 or so billion, we suggest lawmakers sell arms to Sudan, ask the Mexican drug cartels for a loan or—as a very last resort, of course—consider forcing rich people and corporations to pay their share of taxes.

 

End Inmate Welfare

In Texas, the state takes care of around 140,000 residents, spending around $50 a day to provide each of them with all their needs—food, shelter and health care—even though most of them are perfectly able to take care of themselves. In fact, many of these folks are now on the dole precisely because of their zealous entrepreneurial spirit. Texas has a terribly bloated state prison system, and taxpayers have to cough up around $3 billion every year to keep these thousands of no-goodniks in the white cotton and gruel that they’ve grown accustomed to.

It wasn’t always this way. Over the past 30 years, Texas’ prison population has grown eight times faster than the state’s population even though, on the whole, people are nicer now, according to the People Are Nice Foundation’s annual survey (full disclosure: We made the survey up). In 2007, state lawmakers, faced with the prospect of having to house and pamper another 17,000 inmates by 2012, decided it was time to get smart on crime. The state invested in drug courts and programs for the mentally ill, and punished probation violations with community service instead of jail. The programs helped rehabilitate prisoners, which cut down on recidivism. Now lawmakers aren’t looking at building another prison until 2013.

But those programs do cost money to operate. And now the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has been asked to cut 7.5 percent of its budget for the current cycle, and the Legislature will surely come asking for more cuts this session, perhaps another 10 percent. Cutting the very programs that are reducing the inmate population would be a huge mistake and would only cost the state more in the long run. Instead, it’s time to shut prisons. These facilities cost up to $50 million apiece each year, and we have 114 of them, not counting state jails and juvenile lockups. Lawmakers have said they will look at the numbers and consider consolidating prisons. They should go further and release inmates who don’t pose a danger.

What prisoners could the state safely release? Start with the 23,000 nonviolent drug offenders who are clogging the system and need help with addiction, not incarceration. And, remember, some of the inmates you free could turn out to be Republican voters! It’s a win-win.

Learn about reforms instituted in the last session and what more could be done.

Potential savings, per biennium: $100 million per closed prison

 

Conservative Nanny State

Gov. Rick Perry can’t tolerate the overreaching feds. He’s so prickly about our independence, he’s flirted with secession. But when it comes to Texas conservatives tinkering with our lives, that’s just doing the Lord’s work. From HPV vaccines to marriage-education classes, Perry and his brethren have foisted their own morals upon Texans, turning the Lone Star State into the Nanny State. It’s time for conservatives who preach limited government to walk the walk.

You would imagine that free-thinking Texans wouldn’t stand for the state sticking needles in their star football players. But in 2007, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst pushed through legislation to test high school athletes for steroids, and invested $6 million in the program. The result? A whopping 162 positive results from a pool of 51,635 kids randomly tested in the last three years, according to the Dallas Morning News. Before the session even started, the Texas Education Agency was saddled with making $135.5 million in cuts to its programs for the current biennium, and the TEA suggested doing away with the testing program. The cut would save $1 million over the next year. But Dewhurst wanted to preserve his pet project, and state leaders left $750,000 in the TEA budget for his steroid program, opting to cut programs for low-performing high schools and textbooks instead. This session, this nanny-state fiasco should be sent to the Tour de France, where it belongs.

Speaking of the nanny state, what would a true conservative think of a government program that tells people how to run their marriage? Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, believes it’s up to government to “support and uphold a moral society,” and has deemed that the state could help meet this lofty goal simply by funding an eight-hour crash course for Texans who want to marry. Clearly, this is a nutty way to spend tax dollars, but when he was wielding the Appropriations chairman’s gavel, logic didn’t matter. Chisum is King Nanny, filing legislation on everything from banning gay marriage to outlawing sodomy for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. (“Especially if they are married,” Chisum once harrumphed. “I can’t believe anyone would do that if they were married.”)

In 2007, this architect of morality passed his bill creating free eight-hour marriage-education classes for Texas couples. He took an annual $4.8 million in TANF funds—which are usually used to provide emergency cash assistance and job preparation—to pay churches to provide the classes. In these classes couples can play the “Newlywed Game” and practice role-playing. As one excited participant wrote afterwards on a website, “It wasn’t like therapy or counseling, and didn’t bring up many of the ‘tough issues’ (kids, sex, etc.), but it did focus on communicating to work through issues, yay!!”

Most couples are not so enthralled. Fewer than 15 percent of newlyweds have signed up for the marriage program, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, even though rejecting the curriculum meant they had to pay an extra $60 fee for their marriage license. When told of the low turnout, Chisum was unfazed. “The teaching of the course is working fine, and I have no intention of modifying that,” he said.

“We just have to figure out more ways to get more people to take the course [rather] than pay the double fee.”

We suggest doing away with the marriage classes and using the money on a mandatory course for legislators on hypocrisy. Or we could use the money to feed poor kids.

Potential savings, per biennium: $11.6 Million

 

The Border Security Boondoggle

State leaders like Perry love to talk about how fed up they are with the feds and their expensive mandates and wasteful spending. But they’re happy to trumpet the biggest boondoggle since the Iraq War as long it invokes images of the Alamo. At least, that’s the best reason we can think of why state leaders are spending millions on border security measures that have made little or no difference, except in the bottom lines of defense companies.

The state just can’t spend enough when it comes to militarizing our southern border: The Lege has appropriated more than $250 million for border security in the past two budget cycles. The funding has paid for a “virtual border fence” of surveillance cameras, shiny new helicopters and Texas Ranger patrols.

The 29 border-surveillance cameras, heavily touted by Perry, turned out to be a joke, resulting in just 26 arrests in four years—which means taxpayers shelled out $153,800 per arrest, according to The Texas Tribune. Perry says border-security funding has resulted in a 60 percent drop in border crime—but the data only come from unincorporated areas and don’t include major border cities such as El Paso or McAllen, where most people live and where most crimes occur.

A secure border sounds good, but let’s be smart about it. Otherwise, taxpayers might as well throw their money into the Rio Grande.

Potential savings: up to $250 Million

 

Tax Dollars for Cronies

For a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, Gov. Perry has an unusual way of showing his commitment to free markets. Two of his pet projects, the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund, use government dollars to thwart the glorious and flawless machinations of the marketplace. In what can only be described as socialism, Perry has doled out around $350 million in tax dollars to some of his favorite businesses in the name of job-creation.

There’s evidence that this money is really being spent to keep Perry in office. In March, the Observer found that 20 of the 55 Enterprise Fund companies have either given money directly to Perry’s campaign (through their political action committees or executives) or donated to the Republican Governors Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that Perry chairs. While the companies don’t necessarily provide the jobs they initially promise, the fund does seem to succeed in bringing the governor generous campaign donations.

The situation with the Emerging Technology Fund isn’t much prettier. Shortly before the November elections, The Dallas Morning News reported that Perry supporter David Nance got money for his biotech company after being rejected by the regional review committee. An undocumented “appeals process” let Perry give Nance the money. Overall, the Emerging Tech Fund has sent more than $16 million to companies with investors or executives who donated to the Perry campaign. “For five years, the state’s Emerging Technology Fund has operated behind closed doors,” The Dallas Morning News editorial board proclaimed, demanding an overhaul to the system.

The state auditor is already conducting an audit of the Emerging Tech Fund, expected to come out in June. So Perry has a few months to come up with a way to justify saving his pinko slush fund, which has created fewer jobs than promised. Our word to legislators: Stop Perry from meddling with the free market.

Potential savings: around $450 Million

Additional reporting for this story was done by Abby Rapoport.