Car repair assistance program axed in budget had a lot of money left over

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- The governor is putting the brakes on a program designed to help low-income drivers in Texas pay for car repairs.

He said he vetoed its $87 million in funding over two years from the budget he signed Monday in part because the groups administering it aren't spending what they already have. That's true -- there's a lot of money left on the table -- but the program itself might not be to blame.

To find out why, KXAN visited M.E. Gene Johnson Garage in north Austin, one of just a handful of auto shops still registered to do repairs under the Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance Program, or LIRAP. A good number of cars that go into the shop fail their emissions inspections.

"It's fairly common," the garage's service manager Jason Candelas said. "Check engine light's on, it's a fairly common [thing]."

The way LIRAP works, if you fail an emissions test and don't make a ton of money, you can apply for a voucher to help repair or replace your car. Drivers can get $600 to aid in repairs and $3,000-$3,500 to help with replacement, depending on the type of car.

The program is funded by charging an additional fee during the inspection process for drivers in participating counties. In Travis and Williamson counties, the fee is $2. That money is routed to the state and then given back to county programs to distribute to voucher applicants.

Even with the governor's veto of LIRAP allocations, though, you'll still be paying that extra couple bucks, at least for now. It would take a rule change at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (which runs the program) initiated by the local commissioners court, to eliminate that fee.

So for now, drivers will still be paying into the program at the state level, even though that fund will no longer be paying out the money it collects to local LIRAP programs.

LIRAP's goal is to make our air healthier by making dirtier cars cleaner or getting them off the road entirely.

But the program has struggled to attract a lot of people, especially in the last couple years around Travis County. "We've seen quite a bit of drop off," Tom Hebson, co-owner of M.E. Gene Johnson, said.

His shop used to do five to 10 voucher repairs a month; now it's around one or two. Part of the reason, he and some other shop owners think, is confusion over the new one-sticker policy for inspections and registration and an unfamiliarity with LIRAP and its rules.

"Although it's printed on every inspection form that [LIRAP is] there, there's just a general lack of knowledge that it's there," Hebson said.

Since 2015, when those rules went into effect, Travis County has seen the number of payouts drop dramatically. In 2014, the county sent out vouchers for 362 repairs and 139 replacements; in 2015, the number of repairs fell to 250, the replacements to 110, and last year, vouchers covered just 115 repairs and 104 replacements, according to the local program's records.

But the TCEQ denies that the sticker change had an impact statewide.

Gov. Greg Abbott is right, the program isn't using the money it has. Over the life of the program statewide, LIRAP has taken in $360 million, according to Brian McGovern with the TCEQ, but only distributed about $200 million. That's $160 million left on the table.

Here in Travis County, the program didn't use half of the million-or-so dollars it got from the state last year, the county's air quality project manager Adele Noel said.

"The money was there," Candelas, the auto shop's service manager, said, "just a lot of people weren't applying for it."

The good news for anyone hoping to use this program in Travis County, the money will still be there, at least for a while. Since the county has so much leftover cash, administrators will still be able to run the program for the next several months, if not longer.

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