AUSTIN (KXAN) - For two decades, Texas lawmakers have used billions of the money meant for specific programs like hospital trauma care for other purposes – all in an effort to cleverly balance the state's budget.
On Monday, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio , called on an appropriations subcommittee to consider the issue as part of an interim charge ahead of the 83rd Legislative Session beginning in January. After cutting $14 billion – according to Straus – from the current budget cycle, next session could likely result in further harsh financial decisions.
This crafty accounting process called "funds consolidation" will shift $4.9 billion in balances to certify the current budget – a figure Straus cited from the state comptroller's office.
For example, he pointed out that the state collects millions each year through surcharges for repeat traffic offenders and drunk drivers. Instead of using that money for its intended purpose – hospital trauma care – he said a large portion sits "unspent so that it can be counted for budget certification."
"It has become an accepted practice in both good times and bad times," Straus said.
Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, agreed the matter is a hurdle toward efficiency and transparency in the budget process for the public.
"It is a growing obstacle for enacting an efficient and fiscally responsibly state budget," Pitts said. "These numbers have accumulated over 20 years."
In an effort to make budgeting "fairer, simpler and more straightforward," Straus urged lawmakers during the hearing to "spend fees for intended purposes or not collect them at all." The latter is something he has tackled before.
The Speaker authored a bill in 2007 to eliminate the state's Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF) fee . In 1995, the Legislature established the fee as a "temporary" 1.25% surcharge on landline and wireless phone services in order to pay for Internet tools for public entities like schools, libraries and hospitals..
While the fee reached its statutory revenue cap of $1.5 billion in 2003, lawmakers voted to extend it and divert the money into the state's general fund.
"There will never be an easy time to make this important change," Straus told the panel. "It will require discipline and tough choices."
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