HOUSTON – Houston-area lawmakers appealed to their counterparts in Austin on Friday to release more of the funds originally intended to help the elderly and poor survive the brutal Texas summers.
The LITE-UP Texas program began in 2002 and currently offers a 10 percent electricity bill discount to qualifying customers in May, June, July, August, and September. But that money, historically, has not been used entirely for the purpose originally proposed. A recent study by the Dallas Morning News shows the state collected $130 million in those electric-bill fees this fiscal year, but paid out only $28 million to qualifying customers.
"I think it's wrong. But then government does things that's wrong,” said 73-year-old Samuel Dyer from his house in Houston’s Acres Homes neighborhood.
Dyer and his wife live on Social Security. Their central air conditioning unit went out four years ago and Dyer says he can’t afford to repair it. They rely on two window-mounted AC units at either end of their house and struggle to keep the home under 85 degrees. And the electricity bill is never easy to pay.
“You pay what you can and don't worry about the others,” said Dyer.
Dyer could qualify for the state's assistance program. Texas electricity customers pay about a dollar monthly on their electric bills to help the elderly and low-income. But over its 9-year history lawmakers have continually found ways to steer millions of those dollars elsewhere.
"I mean if we were told that it was to help people in need it ought to be used for people in need,” said Dyer.
"I call it political stealing. It is not transparent. It's certainly not conservative. It's not fiscally responsible. And it is certainly hypocritical,” said State Rep. Sylvester Turner.
Turner has been a vocal opponent of steering funds away from the System Benefit Fund. The House draft budget for the 2012
bi-annum calls for cutting the program by another 25 percent, reducing the money available to the program. And the percentage paid to individuals who qualify for the program has been reduced from as much as 17 percent in years past, to just 10 percent now. But other state leaders have successfully argued the money has to be re-directed to other general fund needs until the economy recovers.
"But what about people who are dying this summer,” said Turner. “What do you say to the families of these elderly individuals? --People who are dying in Dallas. People who have died in Houston. What do you say to them?"
Turner and other lawmakers have made this appeal before. Now as a record heat wave continues to grip the state they hope their counterparts will feel the heat and change course.