The House Committee on County Affairs chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) gathered for two public hearings on Sept. 25 and 26. The hearings focused on important county issues including indigent defense funding, behavioral health in the criminal justice system, and approval of county disbursements.
During the first hearing, committee members were informed on the high cost of indigent defense to counties. El Paso Commissioner Vincent Perez testified that Texas ranks 41st in the nation for indigent defense spending. For example, El Paso County funds 91 cents to the dollar for indigent defense, whereas the state funds only seven cents. After the commissioner’s testimony, Chairman Coleman expressed his desire for the state to play a larger role in financing solutions to drive down the financial burden on counties.
Throughout the hearings, numerous county officials including the President of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, Robertson County Sheriff Gerald Yezak testified on behavioral health needs in the criminal justice system. The committee examined topics such as diversion, outpatient competency restoration, telemedicine, and continuity of medication.
Bexar County Director of Judicial Services Mike Lozito and Director of Mental Health Gilbert Gonzales testified on how their relationship with law enforcement and community organizations impact their successful ability to divert individuals away from the county detention center. They expressed their gratitude to Chairman Coleman and committee members for their support in the passage of HB 13 by Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) and SB 292 by Sen. Huffman (R-Houston) as it has played a major role in their ability to continue funding these services.
In the law enforcement behavioral health panel, Kendall County Sheriff Al Auxier testified on his successes with telemedicine in his jail, to which Chairman Coleman said, “You’re to be commended for using your problems solving skills.” Sheriff Auxier had a busy couple of weeks in the Capitol, as he recently testified before the Senate Criminal Justice on Sept. 12 over the same topic.
Sheriff Yezak and Robertson County Jail Administrator Tifani Witherspoon shone light on the challenges rural counties experience with transitioning inmates to state psychiatric beds.
“We [the State of Texas] got here because of your advocacy,” said Chairman Coleman, in reference to the progress of mental health. “Your testimony was very, very helpful.”
Lastly, the Committee addressed its interim charge dealing with approval of county disbursements and if counties with a population below 190,000 could benefit from the removal of the population limitation from Local Government Code Section 154.041 and Local Government Code Section 113.047.
Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood recommended to the committee that they study this issue further and expressed that commissioners courts want flexibility on their meeting schedules. Travis County Treasurer Dolores Ortega-Carter testified on the benefits of removing the population brackets in order to make the disbursement approval process the same in all Texas counties.
Archived videos of the two interim hearings from September may be found on the Texas House Website.
|Sheriffs Association of Texas President, Robertson County Sheriff Gerald Yezak, Chairman Coleman, Robertson County Jail Administrator Tifani Witherspoon, and TAC Senior Legislative Manager Noe Barrios.
||From left to right... Kendall County Sheriff Al Auxier, Dawn Elder (Starlite Recovery), Sheriffs Association of Texas President, Robertson County Sheriff Gerald Yezak, Robertson County Jail Administrator Tifani Witherspoon