Illustration by Austin Smith
About this time last year, marijuana made Texas history. For the first time ever, the state criminal jurisprudence committee passed a transformative piece of legislation, House Bill 2165, that would have legalized and regulated recreational use of marijuana, as well as expanded medical use while potentially generating $166 million in tax revenue. The bill never made it out of calendars, however the bill’s Longview Libertarian sponsor and co-author David Simpson had every intention to reintroduce it during the upcoming 2017 legislative session.
Unfortunately, just three weeks ago, HB2165 and any hope for recreational marijuana use in the near future died when Simpson lost the election for a seat in the Texas senate to the likes of Bryan Hughes, who scored super PAC funding and endorsements from Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick. What’s left is the hope for a revival of El Paso Democrat Joe Moody’s HB507, a decriminalization bill that would reduce the penalty of possession of two ounces or less down to the cost of a speeding ticket. In a cruel plot twist, Hughes took a very public stand opposing full legalization throughout his campaign against Simpson, but kept the fact that he co-authored HB507 rather hushed.
Nonetheless, there’s a story behind why marijuana reform is finally on the receiving end of increasing Republican support. The potential for state budget savings is huge. In 2012, approximately $734 million of our taxpayer dollars were spent in criminal court processing for low level offenses, an argument that Moody has not wasted to broaden his coalition and should in theory appeal to the fiscal conservative persuasion. However, the typical politician’s drill of pandering their respective base’s votes to win elections has historically proven to work against the notion of efficiency. That being said, healthy cynicism grants plenty of justification to doubt the viability of HB507, but there are a few new reasons to be optimistic this time around.
Although Texas does have a more diversified tax base compared to other oil and industry dependent states, projected oil revenue loss will be deeply felt in the budget surplus. The market cost of each barrel is currently at $46, down from $100 in mid-2014. The slowdown in energy prices has had a direct, tangible effect on economic growth and jobs. Some oil reliant states like Alaska and North Dakota have already slipped into recession. In October, the comptroller revised the Texas state revenue estimate for 2016 and 2017 dropped by $2.6 billion to $100.4 billion, which reduced our projected 2017 surplus to $4 billion, a third less than what was originally predicted.
When oil prices dropped below $30 a barrel in January, Moody’s Investment Services stated that the state’s surplus ran the risk of disappearing. The following May, Texas state agencies and social services were informed to anticipate “leaner times ahead” by senate leaders. In a letter to the Appropriations Committee written on April 19th, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Joe Straus asked fellow members to consider a number of budgetary concerns when they reconvene in January, specifically citing the impact of the drop of crude oil prices and a steadily declining sales tax base would have on the state’s finances.
In the same letter, Straus outlined some alarming challenges on the horizon that are in dire need of heavyweight funding that isn’t going to come from austerity alone. He stated that the state’s foster care system is in the throes of a major crisis and should be a top priority next session, most likely because there is an existing class action lawsuit against the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and Governor Greg Abbott (and formerly Rick Perry) filed by Children’s Rights of New York. The suit alleges that state officials showed deliberate indifference to find permanent homes to some 12,000 children that were repeatedly and systematically exposed to physical, sexual and psychological abuse while in the system’s Permanent Managing Conservatorship program. Abbott and state foster care officials are still appealing Corpus Christi Judge Janis Jack’s original ruling against the agency, but even though they are refusing to accept a history of negligence, there is a new awareness of urgency that this catastrophe can no longer be ignored and that the foster care system requires a massive overhaul of policy change and significant budget resources.
Of course, these aren’t the only budgetary shortages and crises the state faces but they are representative of unprecedented issues that will undoubtedly prompt a more strategic fiscal review. Straus asked his colleagues “to approach the work of this interim period with purpose and creativity.” Perhaps one of these creative solutions could include a renewal and implementation of Joe Moody’s HB507. It’s certain that $700 million dollars in “potential” savings would not completely alleviate the capital needed to make up for losses or upcoming obligations, but fiscally conservative law makers will desperately be looking for ways to fill the gaps and that is a pretty big chunk of change that can be stretched.
Here’s the breakdown on what HB507 does and what kind of support it has. For those interested in keeping up, it won’t be called HB507 again next session. It will have some other to-be-determined number attached to it. For possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, you will be liable for a civil penalty of $250 dollars, no court appointment, no questions asked. After your bud is confiscated (you didn’t think it was going to be that easy did you?), the best part is that you can walk away from it with no conviction. More than an ounce and less than two ounces will be classified as a B misdemeanor, an A for for exceeding more than two ounces, a state jail felony for four plus ounces to four pounds and so on.
The prospect of saving precious tax revenue and freeing up law enforcement resources to tackle crimes that actually involve a victim is attractive to establishment Republicans, but Governor Abbott remains a thorn in the side of anti-prohibitionists. When asked if he would support a decriminalization bill like HB507, his spokesman, John Wittman, seemed to gloss over the question by responding in an email to the El Paso Times that “Gov. Abbott supports current drug laws and opposes the legalization of marijuana.” Abbott did, however, revise his attitude toward medical marijuana almost as soon as he stepped into office when he signed the Compassionate Use Act, granting access to low-THC cannabis for patients with severe epilepsy. Texas is not the only state to make this exception and, not to devalue the importance of compassionate use programs, but this brand of bare minimum legislation is considered as more of a symbolic bread crumby gesture when there are far more diseases and conditions that are known to benefit from medicinal expansion. Regretfully, HB507 as it stands does not offer an avenue for medical augmentation.
The bottom line is that a majority of Republicans have to see decriminalization as a viable means to keep Texas’s bottom line afloat. With all the extenuating circumstances eroding our precious surplus and overwhelming the criminal courts there seems to be a sizable crack in the door where something like HB507 can wedge a foot in the door.