February 27, 2007
On using funds as they were dedicated

I feel like there's a point that needs to be made in this story about using dedicated funds as they were intended but which is lacking.

From electric-bill help for the needy to parks funding to abolishing a telephone fee, promises to spend state fees and taxes for their intended purposes or stop collecting them are working their way through the Legislature.

But the open question remains whether lawmakers, struggling to fund state programs while keeping a pledge to subsidize lower school property tax rates, will be able to stop diverting much of the earmarked money.

The arguments for caution focus on the price tag. Unspent dedicated funds currently total $2.7 billion, according to the state comptroller's latest estimate. That's money that can be used to help balance the budget just by virtue of being on the books.

"It kind of boils down to, what does the Legislature want to do?" said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, Senate Finance Committee chairman. "I'm not for increasing taxes somewhere else to pay for that cut. And I'm not for backing off our property tax cut."

Arguments for spending dedicated fees as intended are fierce, particularly from advocates who see change possible now that leaders like Gov. Rick Perry are on board.

"The bigger question is whether or not we are going to budget with integrity," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, House speaker pro tem, who has long protested the budget-balancing diversion of a utility fee intended to help lower-income customers with bills. "And whether or not our political rhetoric matches what we do."

Why exactly is it that funds that were initially collected for a specific purpose, such as the much-ballyooed sporting goods tax, which is intended but underused for state parks, wind up getting raided for general revenue purposes? I say it's because too many legislators are reluctant to admit that our tax structure, which is supposed to fund our basic needs, is inadequate for the task. It's much easier, and less politically risky, to sneak a few dollars from this or that fund that most people are not aware of and not paying attention to than it is to talk about the big picture. So they play shell games instead, and hope for the best.

I'd like to see more truth in our taxation, too. It's not right to say that a tax or a fee is for one purpose, and then use it for another. But if we're going to be honest, let's not stop with this. Let's talk about what it's really going to take to meet the public's demands for things like properly funded public schools, because we're sure as hell not doing it now. What Sen. Ogden and the others are talking about here is perfectly fine, but it's also applying a band-aid to a broken leg. Until we fix the underlying issue, I guarantee we'll be right back in the same place again in the future.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 27, 2007 to Budget ballyhoo