Commentary: Legislative budgeting | KERA News

Commentary: Legislative budgeting

Dallas, TX –

Of all the candidates who ran for governor last fall, Democrat Chris Bell had the line that has stayed with me longest. He said, "budgets are moral documents." He meant that the way our state spends money reflects our values as Texans.

But there's another moral dimension to budgets. The way lawmakers manipulate numbers, how they count revenues and spending to make budgets balance, also reflects our values. And for the past few sessions, our budgets would do Enron proud.

Lawmakers have been using tricks to avoid either raising taxes or cutting services. One of their worst habits is refusing to spend money that was collected for a special purpose.

Imagine that your parents gave you a check for your kids' college fund. They trusted you to use it only for that purpose.

But the family van breaks down for the 50th time and you pledge that college money as collateral on a car loan. Then, uh,oh - you forgot! One of your kids is starting college and will need a big tuition check soon. You've committed the same money twice. What do you do? Who gets stiffed?

In the Texas budget, the kid loses out. Legislators sometimes authorize fees for special purposes, then use them for something else. Gov. Rick Perry has grown so exercised about the process that he's been waging a sort of truth-in-budgeting campaign.

The Comptroller's Biennial Revenue Estimate lists dozens of so-called dedicated accounts, which are supposed to support specific programs or causes. Many relate to colleges, and actually benefit the named institutions.

But in other accounts, lawmakers allow money to accumulate just so it can balance out other spending. For example, part of every marriage license fee goes into the Child Abuse Neglect and Prevention Trust Fund. The fund contained $33 million at the start of fiscal year 2007 -- but not one dollar was expected to be spent.

Then there's the money from auto inspection fees. Some of it is supposed to help companies switch to cleaner-burning trucks and take polluting clunkers off the road. But at least $100 million just sits in that account from year to year - and our air stays dirty.

Perhaps the biggest stash of cash is the System Benefit Fund. A small fee on electricity bills - about 85 cents per month for residential customers in deregulated areas - goes into the fund. That money is supposed to help low-income Texans pay their utility bills and weatherize their homes.

It doesn't. It simply piles up in General Revenue Account 5100, helping balance the budget. By then end of this fiscal year, there will be about $409 million in the fund. Two years from now, the total could probably be more than $700 million. Meanwhile, some struggling Texans must choose between air conditioning and food because they can't afford both.

In the past, budget writers have hoarded cash because economic downturns shrank tax collections. Now they're hoarding money because they didn't get tax reform right in the last session. They cut property taxes without finding enough new money to offset those revenue losses. But with a little creative accounting, they can make those books balance. Ken Lay couldn't have done it better himself.

Jennifer Nagorka is a writer from Dallas.

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