(Austin, Texas)—Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today condemned efforts to raid a fund dedicated to providing juror pay and indigent defense to help balance the state’s $23 billion budget deficit.
Ellis said sweeping fees dedicated to working class Texans while leaving judicial pay — therefore, legislative pensions — and tax rip-offs untouched, was yet another example of balancing the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it.
In 2005, Texas ranked dead last in the nation in what it paid jurors, who had not received a pay raise since 1954. To boost jury participation, the legislature added an additional $4 fee on criminal convictions, and used the fee to provide Texas counties funds to raise jury pay to $40 a day. In addition, any money raised above the level to fund the jury pay raise was dedicated to the Texas Fair Defense Fund to provide indigent criminal defense.
SB 1582 essentially eliminates the juror pay raise and uses that money to certify the budget. SB 1582 also takes the millions in the Fair Defense Account and uses it to balance the budget.
“This is a rip-off,” said Ellis. “It took years to force this state to make these small but vital justice reforms and now, in one fell swoop, we are destroying any progress we’ve made.”
Furthermore, in CSHB 1, the Task Force on Indigent Defense is now granted a “sum certain appropriation” rather than “estimated budget authority.” This seemingly minor change significantly reduces the amount of money available for indigent defense grants to Texas counties. It is estimated that $16.6 million will accrue in the Fair Defense Account over the coming biennium to balance the budget rather than be spent on grants to the counties for indigent defense, even though the Account is funded through a series of court-related fees specifically put in place solely to fund indigent defense.
“This is yet another example of this legislature taking money from those at the bottom while protecting those at the top,” said Ellis. “We used the exact same fee we are going to raid under this bill–this $4 fee on convictions–to give judges a pay raise that same session. Are we going to reduce the salaries of our judges this session? No.”
“At some point we must stop the smoke and mirrors, stop robbing Peter to pay Paul and address the structural challenges facing this state,” Ellis said.