Lyle Larson: It's time for truth in Texas' budget process
As the 83rd Legislative Session approaches, many Texans have been encouraged to learn of Governor Perry's and Speaker Straus' initiatives to end the Legislature's practice of using funds collected for a specific purpose for other purposes. My office has worked to restore truth in budgeting for several years, and we are grateful to see the state's leadership make this worthy goal a priority.
For far too long, Texas legislators have raided dedicated funds to finance unrelated programs and agency budgets. When a new tax or fee is imposed upon us, it's often sold to us based on what specific purpose it will be used for. Unfortunately, the Texas Legislature has not been truthful about the use of Texas taxpayer dollars after these taxes and fees are levied. Much of the revenue raised from these dedicated sources ends up being used to fund items that have nothing to do with the original purpose of the fee. The Legislature collects revenue from many different sources, from custom license plates to solid waste disposal fees, and almost every source is dedicated to a specific purpose.
During the 82nd session, my office filed HJR 84 and enabling legislation HB 1131 to end the longtime practice of diverting money from Fund 006 (the state gas tax fund, which receives $0.20 per gallon of gas at the pump) for items not germane to the construction and maintenance of state roads. Since 1986, an average of $700 million per year has been diverted from Fund 006, approximately 21 percent of the fund. In the current biennium, multiple agencies that are unrelated to highway construction and maintenance received appropriations from Fund 006. As mobility in our state continues to decline due to the inability to find funding to build additional capacity to our highway system, we must work to restore integrity in the way we appropriate money from Fund 006.
Additionally, we pursued HB 1628, which would require that our state parks and historical sites receive the entire amount of revenue raised from the Sporting Goods Sales Tax. In 1993, the Legislature passed a bill designating the sales taxes collected from items classified as sporting goods as the Sporting Goods Sales Tax. At the time, the Legislature intended that this revenue fund functions of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). Unfortunately, in 1995, the Legislature capped the amount of revenue directed to parks and that cap still remains. In the current biennium, the Sporting Goods Sales Tax raised more than $250 million, but only $52 million was appropriated for parks. To correct this problem, our bill requires that TPWD receive 94 percent of the Sporting Goods Sales Tax revenue and the Texas Historical Commission receive the remaining 6 percent. With $700 million in park maintenance deferrals, we must act now.
Finally, we pursued an amendment during the special session that would end the practice of using the Trauma Facilities and Emergency Medical Services Account (Account 5111) to certify the budget, rather than appropriating the funding to our state's trauma hospitals. This fund was created in 2004 to help Texas trauma hospitals offset the cost of providing uncompensated care. Since then, the state has collected significantly more than it has appropriated to these facilities, choosing instead to hold on to the funding and use it to balance the budget. The Trauma Facility Fund is absolutely crucial to the operation of the 265 trauma hospitals statewide, as expenses for out of county patients are not fully reimbursed by the state. Texans depend on trauma hospitals to save the lives of our most critically injured patients each day, and this fund should only be used to help them do so.
Texas is a leader in many things. Let's do our part to ensure Texas leads in being honest with voters about how we say we will use our citizens' money. Now is the time to restore truth and integrity in the legislature's budgeting process.
Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) represents District 122 in the Texas House of Representatives. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.