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May 20, 2008 (512) 463-0300

ELDORADO CASE WILL COST STATE MILLIONS

(AUSTIN) -- The cost of care and litigation surrounding hundreds of children removed from a west Texas polygamous compound has run into the millions of dollars, and costs will continue to rise, according to testimony at a Senate hearing Tuesday. The Senate Finance Committee heard from state and county officials in order to determine how much the state will have to spend to cover the cost of this massive operation.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins said state agencies have already spent more than $5 million to provide food, shelter, counseling and other necessary services to the 465 children under its care in this case. Employee overtime and travel make up the bulk of this expense. As those children move into foster homes or remain under state care, these costs will mount, at a rate of more than a million dollars a month for housing and medical care. Hawkins assured the committee that his agency has implemented an auditing program to ensure that related expenses are justified.

County governments are also facing millions of dollars in costs. State District Judge Ben Woodward, one of the judges with jurisdiction over this case, said that two counties would bear most of this financial burden: Tom Green county, where the related trials and court proceedings are taking place, and Schleicher county, where the compound itself lies. Competency hearings and other legal services have already topped $2.2 million in Schleicher county, and Woodward said neither county will have the money to cover the legal expenditures surrounding the case. "We're at a point now where we're going to start limping along pretty badly," he said.

The state has a number of ways it can get needed money to local and county officials to offset the costs. Ursula Parks of the Legislative Budget Bureau laid out a number of options, from emergency funding from the Governor's office, to county assistance grants already allowed under statute.

Committee Chairman Senator Steve Ogden of Bryan doubted the initial analysis would reflect the final state and county expense . He noted while the current cost analysis has dozens of different line items, the future analysis only considers a few potential costs. " The cost of this operation is going to be a lot more than is on this sheet of paper," he said. "It doesn't reflect what is going on now, and there are huge legal costs out there that we haven't even discussed yet." Ogden wants county and state officials to rework their future analyses, including estimations of the potential legal price tag, so lawmakers aren't caught flatfooted when the next legislative session in January. "I think its important to get a handle on all the costs so come around November y'all don't walk down here and say we were only off by 15 million, and you guys got to find it some place," said Ogden.

The Senate Finance Committee is chaired by Senator Ogden and consists of Senators Judith Zaffirini, Kip Averitt, Eddie Lucio, Jr., Jane Nelson, Bob Deuell, Kyle Janek, Tommy Williams, John Whitmire, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Royce West, Kevin Eltife, Florence Shapiro, Robert Duncan and Kevin Eltife.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

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