The Texas House on Friday voted to buy an unused West Texas prison for $19.5 million, brushing aside growing criticism that the state has 12,000 empty prison beds and is wasting taxpayers’ money.
The decision to leave intact funding for the 1,100-bed Jones County lockup is expected to set up a showdown with Senate leaders, who have openly criticized the House as engaging in pork barrel politics.
The House approved the purchase in House Bill 1025, a supplemental appropriations measure, by a 129-9 vote.
“We’ll look forward to a discussion with the Senate,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. “This is just putting it out there for discussion. This is not the final version of the bill.”
The $35 million prison was built by the county with private bonds in 2009, after the state signed a contract with Jones County to house state convicts there. But before the lockup opened, the state canceled its contract because the prison population was declining.
The prison has been idle ever since, and county officials and bondholders are on the hook for the expenses.
Supporters of the plan argue that the county was duped by the state into building the facility, and the state should pay for it. They argue that the purchase price is only a fraction of its worth — a great deal for taxpayers.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, had proposed an amendment to drop funding to buy the jail. But it never came up for a vote Friday.
“I decided I had other fish to fry,” he said. “I know we don’t need those beds. But this is going to conference with the Senate. I’m sure they will do the right thing.”
Other House members who opposed buying the empty prison said the bottom line was politics: They agreed to leave the purchase money intact, in exchange for support on other bills.
Senators had angered House supporters of the purchase earlier this week by criticizing the deal as an example of wasteful spending by House Republicans who tout themselves as fiscal conservatives. One key object of their ire was Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, who had announced that he was actively working to kill funding “to buy a prison we never needed, don’t need, never will need.”
Under the House plan, the lockup would be mothballed for possible future use, if the state prison population ever climbs again to the point that it is needed. Whitmire and other Senate leaders said mothballing carries hefty maintenance costs in the meantime.