Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg made her first public comments Tuesday about Gov. Rick Perry’s move Friday to cut about $3.7 million in annual funding to her office.
“It feels partisan, and it’s misguided, as far as I’m concerned,” Lehmberg said in a brief interview with reporters after addressing county commissioners for about 45 minutes Tuesday morning.
Lehmberg appeared before the commissioners to talk about Perry’s line-item veto in her first public appearance since being released from jail May 9 after a drunken driving conviction in April. Perry had pledged last week to cut the unit’s funding if Lehmberg did not resign.
The only commissioner to have publicly called for Lehmberg’s resignation, Gerald Daugherty, also the lone Republican member, was absent from Tuesday’s meeting. In a phone interview, Daugherty said: “I am not going to get pushed into a corner as a commissioner to fund the Public Integrity Unit, because that is not the responsibility of the Commissioners Court. … I am not going to put that on the backs of the taxpayers of Travis County.”
The Public Integrity Unit, a department of the district attorney’s office, has been funded by the state since 1982 and prosecutes state corruption crimes committed in Travis County as well as some tax and insurance fraud committed statewide. The unit has 34 employees, and the state funding pays their salaries as well as other costs. This year’s state funding will run out Aug. 31.
Speaking with reporters, Lehmberg refused to answer questions about anything other than the Public Integrity Unit and said again that she will not resign.
County commissioners discussed options to keep the unit running but took no action. County Judge Sam Biscoe said he expects to bring the issue back to the commissioners in two weeks to take action, which might include using county taxpayer funds to pay for the department. Commissioners were not optimistic about the Legislature finding another way to fund the unit, despite Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, saying Monday that he would work to make sure the unit gets the money it needs to operate.
“Without some extraordinary effort, state funding has disappeared for the next biennium … and the future of the Public Integrity office depends on Travis County,” Biscoe said.
Of the roughly 400 cases pending for the unit, about 280 can only be prosecuted in Travis County, officials said. Despite the funding cut, Lehmberg said her office still has the responsibility to prosecute those cases. Commissioner Margaret Gómez equated Perry’s cut to an unfunded mandate, leaving local taxpayers with the responsibility to pay for a statewide office.
“This is an unfortunate situation we have to consider. … It’s a financial surprise to all of us taxpayers who have to foot the bill,” Commissioner Ron Davis said.
If the commissioners fund the entire $3.7 million for the unit this year, that would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $7.60 in property taxes. County taxpayers already fund the district attorney’s $17.5 million budget.