Texas shouldn’t keep spending on unneeded prisons

Posted Monday, Apr. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Is it fiscally prudent for Texas taxpayers spend $54 million to preserve 300 jobs in a small community?

What compelling reason is there to keep spending more than $20 million a year on a program that endangers the well-being of people it oversees?

Does it make economic sense to taxpayers to spend $19.5 million on an empty, never-used building the state might never need?

Each of these examples involves a prison facility in Texas. And in each case, the obvious choice should be to save taxpayer money.

But Texas legislators are being pressured to engage in spending that can’t be justified.

It’s not that there aren’t arguments in favor of putting these millions into these facilities — they just aren’t the better reasons, and they shouldn’t prevail.

Take the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility. It’s a 2,100-bed minimum-security prison run by the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, and it has 500 empty beds that aren’t likely to fill up anytime soon. Closing it would free up $54 million over two years for the state to spend on numerous other needs. But locals say shutting the place would put people out of work and damage a community that’s hurting for positive economic news these days.

Surely there would be pain, but is it Texas taxpayers’ role to bolster a large employer in a small town when the services provided come expensively and inefficiently? Isn’t this the kind of government waste that fiscal conservatives want to eliminate?

All the years when Texas’ prison population kept growing, some communities courted prisons as economic drivers. But it’s no longer a growth industry.

With Texas prisons operating with more than 11,000 empty beds statewide, Democratic as well as Republican lawmakers are rightly pushing to consolidate facilities and cut costs. Some Republicans in affected communities are resisting mightily, as might be expected.

The Texas Senate’s version of the state budget for 2014-15 would stop funding for the Mineral Wells prison, as well as the Dawson State Jail in Dallas, another CCA facility that received $43 million the past two years but has been targeted by critics for providing such poor medical treatment to inmates that some have died.

The House budget, however, did not cut out those facilities.

In fact, the House would spend $19.5 million for an empty prison the state encouraged Jones County, north of Abilene, to build. But the state didn’t need the facility and ended the contract without ever sending prisoners there. The county wants to get rid of an albatross burdening its residents. But should taxpayers elsewhere have to shoulder the cost of Jones County’s bad bet?

A House-Senate conference committee will work out budget differences, presumably by the end of the session May 27. Unnecessary expenditures on unneeded prisons should not survive.

As fiscal conservatives keep hammering home, government can’t be all things to all people; hard budget choices must be made; and taxpayers can’t be expected to underwrite all handouts, even for worthy causes, when there’s a limited amount of money to spend.

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