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System benefit fund advances

He had to overcome a Talton point of order, but Sylvester Turner is one step closer to getting the System Benefit Fund restored.

Public interest groups hailed the tentative passage of House Bill 551, sponsored by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. The bill would restore the System Benefit Fund, ensuring that a monthly fee paid by Texas electric customers is used for the purpose for which the fund was established — helping low-income residents with their electric bills.

“We’ve been fighting for this for two years,” said Toni McElroy, president of Texas ACORN, an advocacy group. “We’re thrilled.”

Since 1999, Texans have been paying an average 65-cent monthly fee on their electric bills that initially was collected to lower electric bills for some 710,000 low-income Texans; to weatherize homes and pay for an education and marketing program to alert Texas customers to the state’s utility-deregulation laws.

But in 2005, lawmakers decided to raid the fund, using the collected fees to help balance the budget. The fees continue to be assessed; today, $408 million in fees sits in the state’s treasury.

Turner’s bill would require that the electric fees collected be used for the purposes established by the Legislature eight years ago.

His bill would double the discount allowed under the old program, enabling eligible customers to receive as much as 20 percent off their bills.

That’s a good start, but as the Observer blog reminds us, the funding still needs to actually be allocated. At least Turner is a conferee, so he has a chance of affecting the outcome. Given how penurious the Senate has been, though, it’s far from a sure thing. Stay tuned.

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