Rick Perry sure has been sticking to his fiscally conservative guns during his first two GOP primary debates. Last week, he doubled down on his claim that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and vowed to repeal Obama's health care bill. Last night, at the Tea Party-sponsored debate in Tampa, he declared that he's slashed taxes by 14 billion during his tenure and he took a stand against a border fence on fiscal grounds, despite its popularity among Republicans. He also slammed the stimulus, saying it created "zero jobs." Forget the facts, like how the stimulus created 2.9 million jobs (PDF), or how Texas used those stimulus funds to make up for 97 percent of its shortfall for fiscal year 2010. The point is, he's gone after government spending, and he's sounded tough doin' it.
Perry talks a big game, but there are nagging discrepancies between his small-government, tight-budget rhetoric and his state's fiscal reality. For instance: those 234 executions.
We've mentioned before that the death penalty is costing certain states a pretty penny and doesn't make much sense in the middle of a recession, but Rick Perry's record brings new meaning to the term "tough on crime." Does the cost of his commitment to capital punishment jibe with the Tea Party audience who cheered him on last night? Let's do the math.
In Texas, a death penalty case costs taxpayers an average of $3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years. Multiply that by 234, and you get more than $700 million. And that's not even counting the cost of keeping alive the 310 death row inmates in Texas. Keeping someone on death row is more expensive than supporting an average prisoner—between $40,000 and $60,000, as opposed to $25,000 for most other inmates. That's because they are in a single cell, meals are brought to them, and they are watched 24 hours. This year, Texas' 310 death row prisoners will cost the state about $15.5 million.
It may seem logical that since Texas' Department of Justice executes people at a steadier rate than most states, Texas spends less money mulling over death row cases. It's true: The death row waiting period in Texas is less than the national average of 15 years, but only slightly. The average Texan on death row stays alive for 10 and a half years before he's executed, and some just keep appealing until their sentence is lessened or overturned. Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center called capital punishment "life without parole in its most expensive form."
Think about what more than $700 million could have done to soften the blow of the recession. It could have gone toward Texas' infrastructure. It could have saved teachers' jobs. It could have helped build the green economy. On the campaign trail in the coming months, as Perry reiterates his hard stance on capital punishment, it's worth asking him to answer for all of the costs, too.