AUSTIN (KXAN/AP) - Lawmakers at the Texas State Capitol and local leaders in Travis County are considering different options to save the Public Integrity Unit after Governor Rick Perry cut funding from the agency.
Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe told KXAN the unit's employees work for the county but are funded by the state. The unit prosecutes public corruption cases.
Right now Biscoe said the unit has about 420 pending cases. Half are Travis county cases, but others impact the entire state. Those include the investigation into the Cancer Prevention Research Institute Of Texas and former Speaker of the U.S. House Tom Delay's appeal.
The veto on Friday has led one Democrat in the the State House to question what will happen to those cases if the funding is cut.
Rep. Sylvester Turner, (D) Houston, filed a resolution Monday that would override the governor's veto.
Turner said he wants to know how the agency could carry out its responsibilities with no state funding.
"If you're going to veto the funding, then we at least ought to know where does the agency go from here?" said Turner. "What about the people that are over there. How are they expected to carry out their job duties and responsibilities come September 1st."
The governor used his line item veto to cut $7.5 million for the unit on Friday. He said no taxpayer money should go to it because Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused to resign following a drunk driving conviction.
"This unit is in no other way held accountable to state taxpayers, except through the State budgetary process," said Governor Perry. "I therefore object to and disapprove of this appropriation."
Conservative Republicans have long wanted to take the ethics watchdogs out of the Travis County DA's office, where Democrats have always won election.
Perry's critics complain that his veto could shut down investigations into his office and its programs.
Turner told KXAN there have been several attempts to destroy the Public Integrity Unit over the years and even during the regular session.
Turner said, "For the last 10 years, people in the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats, have fought off challenges to this agency by those who wanted to get rid of it."
Local Funding Option
As that fight plays out at the Texas State Capitol, Travis County leaders are beginning to deal with the real challenges the veto could have locally.
Judge Biscoe tells KXAN the state budget would've given $7.5 million this biennium for the Public Integrity Unit providing for 35 jobs in the Travis County District Attorney's office.
Biscoe said commissioners will discuss legislative matters during Tuesday's meeting, including the veto. An item could be added to the June 25 meeting that could fund the Unit either fully or in part.
There are also options where the state would fund individual cases handled by the Public Integrity Unit.
"The more we get reimbursed, the easier it will be to absorb part of [the costs]," Judge Biscoe told KXAN.
Biscoe did warn that any moves by the Commissioner's Court is early. He doesn't think any of the commissioners have talked to each other about the cuts.
Last week, it was suggested Perry would cut the funding from the budget if Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg – a Democrat – did not resign. She pleaded guilty to drunk driving in April, following video released of unruly behavior during her arrest.
A jury trial is pending for late July regarding her removal from office. She has said she will not resign but also does not plan to run for re-election once her term ends in 2016. If she does leave office before then, Perry is responsible for naming her replacement for the duration of the term.
"I think we're headed down a very dangerous road," said Rep. Turner. "When we on this side at the Capitol are saying to somebody who is at the DA's office, if we don't your behavior, we don't like your actions, we don't like what you're doing, we'll simply cut off your funding until you behave according to our wishes."
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