$1.7 billion tax dollars for improving the environment unspent by Texas lawmakers

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lawmakers collected $1.7 billion to improve the environment through the state’s emission reduction plan, but have not spent it. The reason? To balance the books.

Per the Texas Constitution, lawmakers cannot spend more than they collect and the Texas Comptroller must sign off on spending every two years. This year, lawmakers have $5 billion collected from Texans in taxes and fees they won’t spend on their designated purpose.

The Texas Emission Reduction Plan (TERP) is one of many budget items known as “general revenue dedicated accounts” – fees collected for a specific purpose. The TERP fee is collected from Texans when they buy, transfer a title, or when companies inspect and register commercial vehicles.

Currently, $1.7 billion is in the fund for TERP which is meant to be used to implement clean school buses and clean fleet programs, air monitoring programs, and alternative fuel programs.

“This money should be spent on cleaning on up the air,” said Luke Metzger from Environment Texas. He just paid a title fee and wants his money spent on the issue he cares about. ‘It’s outrageous that we have $1.7 billion sitting in a bank account that we could spend to solve this problem but legislators are irresponsibly doing budget tricks.”

The emission reduction plan is just one account. There are around 200 others. If lawmakers decided to spend all the dedicated money on the intended purposes, there would be a $5 billion hole in the budget.

State Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin, tells KXAN lawmakers don’t spend the money to make it look like they have more money than they do. Watson, along with several other leading members in the Texas House, has made it a priority in the last two sessions to wean the state off the practice. But, when confronted with fudging the numbers or raising taxes, the voting majority of the Texas legislature rely on budget gimmicks.

“This is a gimmick.”

“In every instance, whether it’s big or small, it’s breaking the promise to the Texas taxpayer,” Watson told KXAN, “it’s done so that members don’t find themselves having to say we’re for fees or taxes.”

Watson voted for the budget but says the way it works under the dome is Republican leaders lump items individual lawmakers are pushing for into the budget then give them an up or down vote.

“This is a gimmick. But it’s also dishonest because you told the taxpayer you’re going to spend that money,” said Watson.

The three people who have the biggest say in this trick are Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio; Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Texas; and Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas. We reached out to their offices and have not heard back. All three in the past have said they want to wean the state off of the process but resorted to it again in 2017 to make the budget work before the comptroller certified it.

Lessening the practice is one of the items the Senate Finance Committee is charged with looking into in between session.

“We need to spend the money where we say we’re going to… but then oil tanked,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. She’s a lead budget writer and tells KXAN she’s working this year is to stop relying on budget gimmicks.

“It’s very important to me,” she said but would not rank it on the scale of priorities saying many priorities need to be weighed when lawmakers create the next budget. If lawmakers spent the money from all the general revenue dedicated account-roughly 9 percent of the budget-lawmakers would have to raise taxes or fees to cover the cost.

“So you’d have to come up with that additional 9 percent funding… which is a chunk of change,” explained Nelson.

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