WASHINGTON — The latest battleground between Texas officials and the federal government is an unlikely clash over the Adam Walsh Act, a federal law to protect children from sexual predators by creating a national sex offender registry that local law enforcement agencies around the nation could tap.
The state — which has the second-largest sex offender database in the nation, with 63,000 men and women registered — is balking at the law's requirements, citing unacceptably high costs of implementing the law's provisions. The Legislature has not yet passed the changes, saying the cost for Texas to comply would be $38.8 million, a significant amount with the state facing a budget crisis.
After two highly publicized showdowns with the federal government over Texas pollution-control efforts and education funding, this low-key standoff is yet another issue in Gov. Rick Perry's ballyhooed war on Washington.
But unlike the previous battles, the governor's office has downplayed the sexual predator issue and has been coy about whether the governor ultimately will support compliance with the federal mandate.
“We support efforts to increase the monitoring of and penalties for these criminals,” said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry. “We will continue working with lawmakers this session to make sure Texas implements measures that will have the greatest impact in protecting our citizens from these violent offenders.”
If Texas does not comply with the federal mandate by July 26, the state will lose 10 percent of its federal funding under a program called the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, which provides assistance to crime victims and witnesses. The penalty would amount to an estimated $2.2 million in 2012.
The crux of the dispute is a difference in approach to the same problem. Texas' current sexual offender registry is based on risk assessment; the federal law requires registration based on offenses committed.
The federal law divides offenders into three tiers based on the crimes they committed and has different registration requirements for each tier. For example, the most severe offenders would have to renew their registration in person every three months. Under current Texas law, sex offenders register either for 10 years or for life based on offense and risk level.
Because of the change in registration requirements, the number of people on the registry would “increase greatly,” according to the report by the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which recommended that Texas not comply with the federal law.
“There will be an enormous amount of cost to the state without enhancing public safety,” said Allison Taylor, executive director for the Council on Sex Offender Treatment, a state agency.
She said a study by the Austin Police Department showed workloads would increase by 178 percent and costs would jump 137 percent because of increased registrations and verifications.
Scott Matson, senior policy adviser for the federal Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART), rejects claims that the law will cost around $40 million to implement, calling it a “crude estimate.”
“The same report listed Ohio's cost at over $18 million and the estimates we've gotten are closer to $400,000,” said Matson.
While Texas Republicans resist buckling to Washington's rules, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, continues to press for the state to meet federal guidelines for the Adam Walsh Act, named for a young Florida boy who was kidnapped and murdered two decades ago. Jackson Lee proposes tapping into the state's rainy day fund and using available federal funding to do it.
“What is more important and more precious than our children?” Jackson Lee asked.
If the impasse can't be broken, she says she'll push the Obama administration to delay penalties against Texas rather than forfeit federal victim assistance funds.
“I think it's more important to get states to comply than to meet arbitrary deadlines,” said Jackson Lee, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “The cost for Texas is considerable but the impact on saving the lives of children warrants that kind of investment.”