AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Thousands of Texans spend millions every year on specialty license plates believing the extra fees they pay will help support such things as state parks, environmental groups or arts organizations, but instead lawmakers have been diverting more than half of those funds to balance the state budget instead of raising taxes.
In the 2012-13 budget cycle alone, the Republican-controlled Legislature diverted $4.9 billion in dedicated funds derived from special fees and taxes to help pay the state's $80 billion in routine expenses. A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants that practice to stop.
"The Legislature collectively over the years has fallen into a bad habit of fee diversions," said Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who helped write last year's budget and has served in the Senate for 12 years. "What do you do when you develop a bad habit? You break it."
Estes spoke promoted a bill Thursday that would stop the diversion of parks and wildlife funds collected through a special sales tax. In the 2012-13 budget, the state collected $250 million in these dedicated funds but only spent $50 million on the Parks and Wildlife Department. Estes said he has also introduced legislation to stop all such diversions by taking dedicated funds out of the appropriations process so lawmakers can't touch them.
The state comptroller reported in December that the Legislature raided dedicated funds for highways, regional trauma centers, medical education programs, clean air projects and even volunteer fire departments.
Lawmakers divert the money every session by passing a funds consolidation bill, which eliminates all the strings attached to dedicated accounts and puts all the money one big pot, explained Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who has been fighting the practice for five years. He praised the apparent bipartisan support for ending diversions and budget gimmicks.
"We have dug a very deep hole because we have an honesty deficit in our budget," Watson said. "We must end the debt, diversions and deception that have played too great a role in Texas' budget process for too long."
Watson has introduced a constitutional amendment and a bill to stop the practice by 2020. Most lawmakers agree that the Legislature has become too dependent on the practice to stop cold turkey.
Lawmakers of all stripes have made ending budget gimmicks a priority this year, especially since state revenues are spiking thanks to an oil and gas boom. Gov. Rick Perry made it a priority in his State of the State speech on Tuesday.
"We have an opportunity this session, an opportunity to true up our budget and move away from the budgetary techniques we've come to depend on all too often," Perry said. "We need to pay now what is due now."
Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Houston on the House Appropriations Committee, said she supports greater transparency in the budget.
"This is the money that is allocated for these purposes and it is critical that it gets there instead of being diverted," she said. "The public thinks the money is going one place, and that they are doing the right thing, and it's not doing it all."
San Antonio Republican Rep. Lyle Larson said the state has diverted $14 billion in highway funds since 1986 and spent it instead on the Department of Public Safety.
"We filed this bill last session, and we were told it was the wrong time, that we didn't have funding to address this," he said of the bill guaranteeing funding for the parks. "If you talk about roads and parks those are things where people are going to be able to see the difference."