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Lawmakers Taking City Dollars For State Budget

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

Dallas, TX – Legislators trying to close the gigantic state budget hole plan to raid city revenue and increase traffic fees. KERA's Shelley Kofler reports on how the state budget crisis could threaten budgets for cities including Dallas.

A long line stretches down the hallway at the Dallas Municipal Court building. Betty Canales is among the drivers waiting to pay a traffic ticket. She was stopped for traveling more than 10 miles over the speed limit, and fined $219.

Canales: People who don't make a lot of money, it's hard for us. I know if we get a ticket it's because we got a ticket, but the money is outrageous and it's crazy.

Right now the first $82 dollars of Betty's $219 fine goes to the state. But legislators facing a massive state budget gap want more. They want to increase the state's fee an extra $15 per ticket.

Betty feels sure that extra cost will be passed on to drivers like her.

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm says Betty is right.

Suhm: We'd certainly pass it on because that's the state law. The concern would be does this create a situation where people just elect to take the risk of not paying their traffic fines.

And that's not the only way state lawmakers are leaning on cities to raise new money. State budget proposals call for taking 24% of what cities currently raise through a tax on alcoholic beverages. That amounts to a $1.8 million loss for Dallas. But Suhm says legislators will probably try to seize all of the mixed drink revenue which would cost Dallas $8 million. To give you an idea of what that means, Dallas would have to lay off 162 civilian employees to offset an $8 million loss, or raise the property tax a full cent.

Suhm: Right now we use that tax that's generated to support bonds at the convention center. Any money that is drawn off that revenue stream that's used to support bonds the general fund will have to make up. So really the crisis at the state and federal levels right now is causing a good bit of concern to us. Our budget I think we can manage, not pleasantly, but we can manage. Those others make it hard.

The state is also planning to cut more than $300,000 a year in state library funds for Dallas and more than $3 million dollars over two years for the homeless, which means fewer people would have shelter.

Waiting to pay her traffic ticket, Betty Canales says the city services threatened by the state budget matter to her.

Canales: Like libraries and things like that because that's good for the kids and education. They need it. I love going to the library.

Dee Thompson, waiting to pay his fine, wants lawmakers to know that extra $15 on a traffic ticket is food on somebody's table.

Thompson: It takes money away from the family.

The Texas Municipal League says the state would receive an extra $130 million a year if it takes all of alcohol beverage tax money now going to cities. That sounds like a lot of money, but that's $130 million to help close an estimated budget deficit of $27 billion.

The legislation to hike traffic fines was filed by Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, (D), from El Paso. House Bill 258 would bring about $40 million new dollars of revenue to the state during the next two years.

Email Shelley Kofler