Ron Davis

Rick Perry vetoes funding for Public Integrity Unit

Funding for state’s Public Integrity Unit disappeared last week with a wave of Gov. Rick Perry’s hand. Now, some say the only way the unit can survive is if Travis County picks up the $3.5 million yearly tab.

Perry used a line-item veto to kill funding for the unit, housed in Travis County and the prime investigator of corruption by public officials and fraud. State funding for the unit will cease August 31 and not be renewed for at least another two years.

The unit’s jurisdiction is statewide, meaning it has the authority to investigate certain cases in other counties. More than half of its pending cases, 280 out of 400, have a Travis County connection. It currently has 34 employees.

Travis County commissioners heard testimony from the unit’s leadership Monday but did not decide on whether to fund the unit. Commissioners said they would meet in two weeks to take action.

 “It’s a financial surprise to all of the taxpayers that have to foot the bill,” said Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis.

Davis said since the unit investigates corruption cases across the entire state, he wants to look for a way to cost-share funding the unit with other counties. 

By issuing his veto, Perry made true on his promise to cut funding for the unit if Rosemary Lehmberg, the embattled Travis County district attorney, did not resign from her post. Republican lawmakers have hammered Lehmberg, a democrat, for being convicted of a DWI in April and insist she resign.

If she resigns, Perry will appoint her replacement. Lehmberg has said although she will not resign, she will not seek reelection and seek professional help.

Lehmberg made her first public appearance since her DWI conviction at the meeting and upheld the unit’s role to investigate corruption in Texas.

“The work remains. The governor’s veto does not affect responsibility,” Lehmberg said.

Senator John Cornyn speaks with Shelby county judge Rick Campbell after the Post-Legislative Conference at Hilton Hotel ballroom on Friday morning. The conference, attended by county elected officials, covered how 82nd Texas legislative session will affect Texas counties and how the budget will operate.

Photo Credit: Mary Kang | Daily Texan Staff

As the federal government and Texas Legislature shave millions off their operating budgets, the cost for vital programs and services — including Health and Human Services and the courts — are shifted locally to counties, according to county officials.

County officials representing 189 of Texas’ 254 counties gathered at the Post-Legislative Conference in Austin last week to discuss what happened at the 82nd Texas legislature and what it means as they prepare their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

“What the Legislature does trickles down to the county level,” said Paul Sugg, the legislative director for the Texas Association of Counties. “When the Legislature starts cutting programs that they fund, that tends to devolve on [the counties’] backs so we are always worried about what happens at the appropriations process.”

During this session, state legislators cut historic preservation grants by 85 percent, from $9 million to $1.4 million; decreased local library funds by 72 percent, from $35 million to $10 million; and cut all $9 million previously allocated to reintegration programs for offenders, according to a comparison chart on Texas Association of Counties’ website.

The Texas Legislature cut total expenditures by 5 percent from last session. That’s a total of $236 million less in state spending. If county officials decide to continue providing services that were cut by the state legislature, the counties must absorb these costs.

“We have this challenge to continue providing adequate services,” said Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis. “Taxpayers will complain if we cut services. On the other hand, they will complain if I raise taxes. Ultimately, the blame will go on [the county] — it’s really a catch-22.”

Elna Christopher, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Counties, said cutting funding to services like the court system is not an option.

“It tends to be discretionary services like libraries or Meals On Wheels that get cut,” Christopher said. “Then again, constituents expect those services, and maybe they’re willing to pay a penny more in taxes to get those services.”

Davis said Travis County is exploring all efficiency and cost-cutting options. Counties rely on property taxes to fund services, so increased costs that are passed down from the state ultimately impact the property taxpayer.

Davis said he doesn’t want to increase the property tax rate in Travis County. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and county officials, such as Davis, will have one month to balance the budget. However, their real concern is much further in the future.

“We’re riding this out with an eye forward to 2013,” Sugg said. “I think there is a county consensus out there that the 2013 legislative session is going to be much worse.”

Senator John Cornyn made an appearance at the conference and said he remains optimistic about Texas’ future, citing an average annual job growth of 3.6 percent since 1990, which is markedly higher than the nation’s average of 1 percent.

“The United States is continuing to struggle, and we continue to struggle, but we are blessed to live in a state that’s doing better than the rest of America,” Cornyn said.