When the Texas Legislature last convened in regular session in January 2003, lawmakers were faced with cutting costs to make up for a $9.9 billion revenue shortfall. Initially, TDCJ faced a budget reduction of 12.5 percent for the 2004-2005 biennium. But in the end, the agency’s two-year budget was cut by approximately $240 million, a reduction of about five percent. The agency’s funding for what remained of the 2003 fiscal year had earlier been cut seven percent.
Cuts to the budget resulted in staff reductions. Approximately 1,700 positions were eliminated; 1,200 employees were notified by letter that their positions were impacted. But because of vacancies created by a hiring freeze and employees choosing to take other positions within the agency, the Department was able to mitigate the impact on the work force. About 600 employees ultimately lost their jobs as a result of the reduction in force, and some number of them were able to take retirement. However, the impact on agency operations remained substantial. Staffing in some TDCJ departments was reduced by one-third or more. Chaplaincy lost 40 percent of its staff, for example, and such substance abuse programs as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous were eliminated in prisons and state jails. The agency’s Parole Division also lost a significant amount of funds for substance abuse programming.
Still, the job got done, a testament to the dedication and determination of TDCJ employees throughout the state.
But what do the next two years hold? Are additional budget cuts in store? Can state employees look forward to a pay raise? As the Legislature again convenes in regular session, Connections recently sat down with Executive Director Brad Livingston and asked him to reflect and remark on issues of importance to TDCJ employees. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Before we talk about the upcoming legislative session, could I ask you to reflect on the last session? It was pretty demanding on state agencies, including TDCJ.
It was very demanding on all state agencies, and TDCJ was no exception. The budget reductions affecting TDCJ were less than half of what was originally considered, and consequently we received the funding necessary to maintain a viable criminal justice system. Still, the agency had to deal with a substantial loss of funding.
Through last year’s reduction in force, TDCJ ultimately lost some 600 employees. Still, the job got done. How do you feel about the way that the agency’s remaining work force responded to the challenge?
It was an incredible response, but I wasn’t surprised because our workforce routinely does exceptional things. I am convinced that TDCJ employees are among the most dedicated and hard working men and women in the state, and I think Texans owe a debt of gratitude to those men and women who accepted the challenge and did more with fewer resources. It is an honor to serve as their executive director.
State agencies have been asked to submit their 2006-2007 budget requests at a level 5 percent below what as appropriated for the current biennium. Does that mean that more budget cuts could be on the horizon for TDCJ?
Not necessarily. Years ago it was a common practice to make state agencies demonstrate the impact of budget reductions of five or even ten percent. That doesn’t mean such cuts will occur. Obviously no one can say for certain, but I have already been in communication with many legislative offices to explain the importance of maintaining current funding. I can tell you with absolute certainty the state’s leadership is committed to maintaining public safety and has confidence in TDCJ. I feel better about the budget situation in the upcoming session than I did going into the previous session. Time will tell.
Let me ask you directly, do you foresee additional staff cuts over the next two years?
No, I do not expect additional staffing reductions, but of course it will depend on decisions by the Legislature. We have been and will continue to communicate why there should be no further staffing reductions.
And, of course, I must ask you to address the issue of pay raises. TDCJ employees haven’t had one since September 2001, and this year’s Survey of Organizational Excellence showed that a large number of the respondents are less than satisfied with their pay. What are the prospects of a pay raise for state employees coming out of this session?
I have read the survey results, talked to employees, read the studies and spoken to numerous legislators and their staff. There is a broad consensus that state employees are deserving of a pay raise. Now, does that mean when everything is said and done, the budget enacted by the Legislature will contain salary increases? I wish I could tell you. It is my hope that employees receive a pay raise and not pay any additional costs for benefits like health insurance, but I don’t know how other issues like school finance will affect the final decision.
Going into a legislative session, there’s always speculation about retirement incentives and an upping of the multiplier used to calculate retirement annuities. On the other hand, TDCJ still suffers from a shortage of correctional officers. Would passage of retirement incentives aggravate that shortage in your view?
As to the impact on staffing, the initial impact of the current retirement incentive has been somewhat offset by a number of retired officers who have returned to work. After the initial impact passed, the number of retirees has not been dramatically higher than it has been in the past, so the impact has been manageable. I have mixed feelings about anything that makes it more likely we might lose our most experienced staff, but I like the fact that it benefits many employees. The fiscal impact of the current retirement initiative has been challenging.
Looking ahead to the session, what other issues do you consider of importance to employees?
In addition to salaries and benefits, I know TDCJ employees are interested in legislation that might involve privatization. Last session there was a lot of discussion about privatization, whether or not we should privatize more of our operations. There has been relatively little discussion of this subject during legislative committee hearings leading up to the session. To what extent the issue will be revisited during the upcoming legislative session is unclear.
Seventy-eight percent of the respondents to the Survey of Organizational Excellence indicated that they planned to still be working for TDCJ two years from now. That’s the highest percentage ever. What does that tell you about the condition of TDCJ?
It tells me that despite the challenges and the obstacles, TDCJ remains a strong and effective agency. Our employees remain committed to a career in public service and public safety. They take great pride in their work, and rightfully so. Nothing can make a state agency stronger than to have a work force of dedicated public servants who serve the state of Texas with distinction.