State Budget Update
County officials were active this week in Senate Finance, providing testimony on key issues important to local government. As many of the state programs are administered at the local level, it is important for county officials to have a voice in the budget decision making process.
In addition to providing testimony regarding the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC), local officials provided testimony on the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). As session continues, we encourage more local officials to become involved in the budget process and help shape many of the policy decisions made in the Senate Finance and House Appropriations Committees.
TAC staff has highlighted a few items that were discussed in this week’s hearings that are of interest to counties:
Department of Public Safety/Commission on Jail Standards
The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), heard budget requests from DPS under Article V on Jan. 28, with a large portion of the discussion focusing on driver licenses. While it’s still unclear whether the driver license program will remain with DPS or be moved to the DMV, one thing was made clear: Whichever agency has the program needs adequate funding to support the growing demand in services due to an increasing population.
In addition to DPS, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) proposed its budget. In the request, the agency is asking for two additional staff members and a decrease of $1 million in grant funding for the Prisoner Safety Fund. TCJS explained that with the Prisoner Safety Fund, created in the 85th legislative session, allowed mental health trainers to provide more than 232 classes, training approximately 2,900 jailers. Feedback on the training has been very positive.
Additionally, around 20 counties have received grant funding through this fund to help with costs associated with SB 1849, the “Sandra Bland Act.” TCJS plans to use the remaining balance in the fund will to provide grants to those counties that are still in need of support should those counties choose to apply.
Also on Jan. 28, the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), heard invited testimony and overviews on the Comptroller's Biennial Review Estimate, the Economic Stabilization Fund, state debt, Texas constitutional spending limits, House budget recommendations, and the costs of the ongoing Hurricane Harvey recovery.
Discussing disaster recovery, Nim Kidd, Chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), testified about the ongoing costs and payouts for Hurricane Harvey. Under the category of public assistance, Kidd testified that, 18 months after Harvey, 80 percent of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money going through TDEM to local governments is paid out. The remaining 20 percent may take 6 to 8 years to complete as local governments continue their recovery.
The current FEMA administrator has started to question why the federal government continues to pay for local and state damages to local and state government property. Kidd cautioned Texas to prepare budgets going forward as if there were no 90/10 split.
Appropriations Chair Zerwas asked if there is federal money set aside for local governments and Kidd answered there is no direct pot of money, but the Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery money meets the needs for non-federal shares.
Responding to a question on how the state can help local governments find the assistance they need before the next catastrophic disaster, Kidd mentioned recommendations found in The Eye of The Storm, the report given to the Legislature from the Commission to Rebuild Texas. Kidd noted the recommendations are local government official-driven ideas.
The Texas A&M Extension Service can provide the needed help with budget, audit, finance and compliance training. Agri-Life extension agents would be used to deploy as additional trained personnel to impacted areas, and TDEM will provide that training.
The Legislative Budget Board (LBB) gave an overview of Hurricane Harvey expenses, as well as projected future costs. Important to counties is the State Funding for Debris Removal. FEMA-approved hurricane-related solid waste and debris disposal costs incurred by local governments are anticipated to be reimbursed at up to 90 percent by the federal agency. Of the $90 million in emergency appropriations in GR account 5000 – Solid Waste Disposal Fees, $21.1 million has been awarded to local governments to be applied toward the 10 percent match required by FEMA for debris removal.
Texas Indigent Defense Commission and Judicial Education Funding
On Jan. 29, the Senate Finance Committee held a public hearing to discuss Article IV, which relates primarily to courts and judicial-oriented agencies. During the hearing, LBB staff provided an overview of the appropriations for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) in the Senate’s base budget. Under the proposed budget, the Commission would receive an additional $18 million in funding for the FY 2020-2021 biennium, which takes into account the elimination of $7.5 million in general revenue funding.
The increase is due to additional funds accruing in the Fair Defense Account as a result of SB 2053, which passed during the 85th legislative session. The legislation increased the percentage of the consolidated court cost allocated to the Fair Defense Account to comply with Salinas v. State. In that decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that certain uses of the consolidated court cost were unconstitutional since they did not fund criminal justice purposes.
The $18 million increase, however, is only a portion of the amount that could be appropriated. In its legislative appropriations request, the Commission is asking for an additional $24.9 million that has accrued in the Account but is not being appropriated.
During the hearing, Medina County Judge Chris Schuchart, San Patricio County Commissioner Alma Moreno, and Jim Allison, General Counsel for the County Judges and Commissioners Association, all provided testimony in support of more state funding for indigent defense. They highlighted the increased county expenditures for the mandate over the years and the significant strain it has placed on county budgets and local property taxpayers.
The Court of Criminal Appeals also presented its budget priorities during the hearing. In those priorities, funding for judicial education is increased by $4.3 million, which will benefit multiple county judicial training entities.
At the end of last session, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed two pieces of the state budget important to local and regional efforts to maintain and improve air quality - the Air Quality Planning Fund and the Low-Income Vehicle Assistance, Retrofit, and Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program (LIRAP). These are two pieces of the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP), which is funded through locally collected fees and taxes in areas of the state deemed nonattainment areas for the purposes of air quality by the Environmental Protection Agency.
TERP is managed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the agency was before Senate Finance on Jan. 30. Senators and witnesses called for releasing more TERP funds (the significant unused balance of $1.8 billion helps the state balance its budget); local government representatives asked that the locally collected funds be administered locally to improve local and regional air quality.
TAC staff will continue to monitor the budget process as hearings continue.