Leveraging Federal Funds to Improve Facilities

Texas has a historic opportunity to shape its future with the federal recovery funds it is receiving. The state could free up future general revenue by using a portion of these funds to improve state facilities – including addressing deferred maintenance, replacing aging state hospitals, and providing air conditioning for prisons. One-time payments like these can ensure the state is protected both from accrued interest and from future lawsuits, saving money, and possibly even lives, over time.

Government infrastructure has historically been underfunded, which creates deferred maintenance needs. State facilities run by the Texas Facilities Commission (not including hospitals, state-supported living systems, roads, schools, parks, or prisons) have approximately $590 million in these unmet deferred maintenance costs. That number will only grow higher without an infusion of funds. Government employees work and provide essential services to Texans all over the state in these buildings, many of which are more than 100 years old.

In 2015, then-Senator Kevin Eltife passed SB 2004 which created the Joint Oversight Committee on Government Facilities, and an accompanying deferred maintenance fund, which was appropriated more than $500 million at the time and an additional $400 million two years later. Eleven agencies received money for deferred maintenance projects from, but 93% of the fund has been expended and the oversight committee has been disbanded.

This fund could be reinfused with federal funds which could then be doled out for current and future deferred maintenance needs.

Another obvious need is state hospitals. The 10 state hospitals run by Texas are important mental health institutes that face several core problems: they need to be in proximity to the communities that could best be served by them as well as close to health care systems; they need to partner with medical schools; and the existing facilities desperately need upgrades.

While Dallas is a key metropolitan area with many health care systems and medical school resources, it is not home to any state hospital. The closest is in Terrell — 40 minutes away without traffic. While $44.75 million was appropriated for planning and land acquisition for a Dallas hospital during this last legislative session, construction has not yet been appropriated.

Construction tends to be the largest cost in developing state hospitals. Since 2016, the new Austin State Hospital has received $570.1 million from the state for pre-planning, planning, and construction while the new San Antonio State Hospital has received $380.2 million. Why are San Antonio and Austin receiving brand new hospitals when they already have hospitals in place? Because Austin’s state hospital was built in 1861 and San Antonio’s is from 1892.

With Dallas receiving the appropriation for pre-construction of a state hospital, the legislature has shown intent to fund this project with general revenue down the line. The Department of State Health Services reported in 2015 that every state hospital, at bare minimum, needed repair and renovation, with half of the 10 needing to be demolished and rebuilt completely. Replacing five hospitals is estimated to cost at least $1 billion. The Legislature has begun that process with San Antonio and Austin, but Texas could save general revenue funds by using federal dollars to expedite the establishment of a Dallas state hospital and the creation or replacement of others.

Finally, there have been statewide calls for improved air conditioning conditions in prisons since at least in 2011 when 10 inmates died during a heatwave. Several bills have been filed in the last decade to address the issue, but none have passed both chambers.

HB 342 by Representative Rosenthal, which aimed to regulate temperatures in prisons, was left pending in committee during the 2021 regular session. This one-page bill would have made only one change to state law: requiring that each facility that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) oversees never be colder than 65 degrees or hotter than 85 degrees. The fiscal note for the bill estimated that the cost to the state would be almost $1.2 billion, with $1.1 billion of that for initial construction costs and the rest for utilities and maintenance.

HB 1971 by Representative Canales was approved by the House but never received a hearing in the Senate. It would have required that air conditioning be installed in uncooled prisons — roughly 70% of the current 100 facilities have no AC in living spaces. The expectation was for all state prisons to be cooled below 85 degrees before 2029. The changes would have been made incrementally, with costs capped at $100 million per biennium. TDCJ expected the cost to be much higher, though Rep. Canales called their $1 billion price tag “ridiculous.”

By simply addressing the problem, the state could avoid future litigation costs like the $6.4 million in legal fees it has spent for lawsuits against TDCJ since 2011, and another $10 million it has paid out in settlements.

TDCJ has overestimated costs before, such as when they cooled the prison near College Station after a lawsuit for $4 million, far below of the original $20 million estimate. Use of federal funds for legal settlements is not permitted, but federal funds could be given to TDCJ to ensure the proper regulation of air conditioning in their units instead of continuing to sell $22 personal fans to inmates. Texas 2036 believes it would be a better investment to simply fix the problem and protect inmates from untenable housing environments than to continue the loop of litigation.

Funding all three issues addressed here — deferred maintenance, state hospitals, and air conditioning for prisons — with federal funds would save general revenue dollars that could be used for other state needs, while saving lives in mental health units and state prisons. All Texans deserve updated facilities that ensure they are receiving the care and services they need.