Aging TX State Vehicle Fleet Fuels 10s of Millions in New Money Requests by Agencies (article continued)

The Texas Department of Public Safety is asking for $12 million to replace vehicles next biennium, and agency officials say that rising costs are decreasing the amount of vehicles the agency can purchase each year. The fuel bill for 7.7 million gallons of gas consumed by the DPS fleet in 2021 was $18.6 million. Last year, it was nearly twice that for 8.6 million gallons.

Others asking for money for new vehicles include the juvenile prison system, the state Department of Agriculture, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Many aren’t asking for anything new this cycle.

The Texas attorney general’s office, for one, isn’t asking to bump up the funding for new cars this time. Its budget request instead focuses on new money for salary increases, tech updates and additional staff and resources for the agency’s 150-person criminal investigation division.

Since Paxton was elected in 2015, the attorney general increased his office’s fleet from 66 in 2016 to 354 in 2022. Those vehicles were purchased mainly for criminal investigators and peace officers employed by the attorney general’s office, who as recently as 2016 were using their own cars or rentals during investigations that ranged from election fraud and cold cases to child exploitation, human trafficking and catching fugitives, said Kristen House, the office’s communications director, in a statement emailed to The Texas Tribune.

“OAG Investigators showing up to a home to serve a search warrant in rental cars or personal vehicles may seem unthinkable, but that is exactly why the attorney general began an effort to assign law enforcement vehicles to agency peace officers,” House said.

How to Prioritize

With a record-breaking state surplus up for grabs---and so many big-ticket items steering the budget discussions---some lawmakers wondered if there is even the time or the ability to fully investigate the fleet requests before they are approved later this session.

For example, can a handful of trucks at one agency hang on for a few more years and save $100,000 in the budget, or will they put safety at risk if they go another thousand miles?

“We have so many unmet needs, everything from infrastructure to education and health care, the criminal justice system, foster care, I mean the list goes on and on,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, a veteran member of the House Appropriations Committee. “So where do the vehicles fall on that? I don’t know, because I haven’t seen what the issue is with replacing them. Is it just because they have X number of miles on them? Is it because they’re breaking down, and it’s going to start costing us more to maintain them? I don’t have that information yet.”

The issue begs the question of whether lawmakers should spend time nickel-and-diming every corner of the 1,033-page budget draft in the 140 days they have available to them to sift through a proposed $288.7 billion budget---or if they should stay focused on bigger proposals, like a $15 billion property tax cut, even if that means smaller requests may go by unexplored.

“I don’t know that we have a process in place that’s really inclusive, with multiple voices, looking at what those assumptions are and how we’re going to set those priorities,” Howard said of the fleet requests. “But that’s what I would want to do.”

With her $30,000 request, Nelson, the former chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said she has a solid case for replacing the vehicle that dates back to the 1998 Furby craze.

Nelson doesn’t actually drive the pickup with manual window cranks and a radio with no tape deck. That pleasure is reserved for the administrative employees who use it to take paperwork to and from the post office, to the state Capitol, and to other state offices in the area from the secretary’s building on the corner of 11th and Brazos in Austin.

The four-cylinder automatic transmission base-model Ranger still has the engine, paint, interior and radio it had when it was purchased new, shortly after Mother Theresa died and right before the search engine “BackRub” was renamed “Google.”

The pickup, its condition a rolling testament to a flawless state-sponsored maintenance schedule, has never even been in a fender-bender.

But it’s going into repair more and more often---most recently for an alternator---and the sheer age of the vehicle has Nelson worried about its safety and reliability.

“I’m proud of our agency for taking such good care of our vehicle,” Nelson said. “But after 25 years, it’s time for a replacement.”

We thank The Texas Tribune for reprint permission.

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