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Tonight, Craig Watkins and John Wiley Price Will Duke It Out Over County Budget Cuts

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It may not be election time, but tonight at 7, two politicians will duke it out at Friendship-West Baptist Church: In this corner ... Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. And in this corner ... Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price -- well, maybe as the commish has been extended an invite, but we're keeping our fingers crossed real hard in hopes he'll show up ready for a fight. Reffing the bout: the church's senior pastor and Friend of the Mayor, Frederick Haynes. At stake: the right to stick your straw in the other guy's soda and suck out a couple million dollars.

(Update at 7:29 p.m.: Price has sent word he's not coming. Watkins is, in his absence, rallying for public pressure on the county commissioners. A full wrap-up in the morning.)

The county has asked departments across the board to cut their budgets by 10 percent for next year. The District Attorney's Office has long contended that justice will be ill-served if it complies.

So Watkins called tonight's town hall meeting -- yet another in a series of them -- and invited Price to "join him in this discussion," as per his office's press release. That may sound like a proper invitation to a ladies' lunch, but with Watkins at the wheel, you can expect something closer to a bar brawl -- especially considering what the cuts will mean to this district attorney's office.

A few weeks ago, I visited First Assistant District Attorney Terri Moore to discuss something called the Memo Agreement Program. The program, which began in January 2007, offered qualified first-time, nonviolent misdemeanor offenders a chance to keep the offense off their records if they took education classes and pissed clean. But offenders are now being asked to cough up $500 to the county in order to participate. I wondered why.

As it turned out, the county had flipped out over the tremendous loss in revenue since so many offenders are avoiding court altogether -- which means they don't have to pay the attendant fines.

"Dallas County lost $1.3 million the first year that Watkins implemented the memo agreement," Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell told Unfair Park. So the District Attorney's Office started charging for it.

Moore was unconcerned. The program costs money to operate, so it made sense to her that they should charge for it. No big deal. However, now that I had her talking about money and pressure from the county, she could not help but get into the whole budget issue.

She said that the county commissioners were really after the district attorney's forfeiture funds, which is like their own piggy bank to dip into when the county refuses to pay for pencils, etc. The money is not legally supposed to be used for salaries. Instead it is supposed to supplement the District Attorney Office's costs to operate. But the county wanted the money, or they were going to cut the D.A.'s staff, Moore said.

"What they're saying to us is this, 'If you don't give it to us, you're going to loose 40 prosecutors,'" said Moore.  "It's a shakedown. It's like a bully on a playground, 'Hey, you're the new guy, you're going to give me your lunch money.'"

Now that Moore was getting worked up about the general budget issue, she suggested that Watkins come to her office and comment. He was there within minutes. Clearly, the budget issue was the forefront agitation on their minds.

"Did [Moore] discuss the philosophical nature of what it means to be a prosecutor?" Watkins asked, after he entered and had a seat beside Moore's desk. "And how law enforcement shouldn't be in the business of generating income, and how corruption will just evolve as a result of that?"

Watkins went on to admit that fighting the budget cuts had come to dominate his time. "More than 50 percent" of his schedule, Watkins said.

"We're consumed by it,"  Moore added. "It dominates everything."

These were the leaders of an office that has been quickly gaining fame throughout the state and country for prisoner exonerations, and they were totally obsessed by the county's demand that they cut their budget by 10 percent. And now Watkins is running out of time, which is why, at events like tonight's, he's attempting to rally public support.

"They are elected," said Watkins, referring to the county commissioners. "Just like I am and everybody else in the county."

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