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Updated: House Passes Bill to Save Car Theft Agency

Police across the state are watching the House anxiously today, hoping for the passage of HB 1541. It's a last-ditch effort to keep alive a small state agency lawmakers created in 1991 that awards grants to police agencies to help prevent and investigate auto theft and burglary.

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Update: The House passed HB 1541 this morning with a vote of 112-28. The measure now moves to the governor's desk.

Police across the state are watching the House anxiously today, hoping for the passage of HB 1541. It's a last-ditch effort to keep alive a small state agency lawmakers created in 1991 that awards grants to police agencies to help prevent and investigate auto theft and burglary.

"This is crazy, this is insane," said Lt. Tommy Hansen, assistant commander of the Galveston County Sheriff’s criminal investigations division. "It makes no logic or sense whatsoever to destroy this program." But in order to keep the program alive, insurance rate payers will have to pay twice the amount they pay now for the auto theft prevention fund.

The Texas Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority is funded with an annual $1 fee on all auto insurance policies in Texas. Since its inception, the agency has awarded grants totaling more than $230 million, and in fiscal year 2010, it gave local departments 28 grants worth more than $14.1 million. The money helps pay all or part of the salaries of about 200 police officers whose main job is to investigate auto theft. Without money from the authority, many of those officers could lose their jobs.

Under current budget proposals, lawmakers plan to continue collecting that fee, but instead of giving it to police to fight auto theft and burglaries, they plan to sweep all the money into the state’s general fund to help close the $27 billion budget hole.

"I can't think of anything that goes to the heart of people's distrust of government more than taking people's money for one thing and doing something else with it," said Charley Wilkison, spokesman for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.

Since the start of the legislative session, police officers, county sheriffs and other law enforcement officers from across the state have begged lawmakers not to raid the fund. The solution that legislators developed was to double the fee that ratepayers are charged, collecting $2 for auto theft and burglary prevention instead of $1. The state would keep half the money to help close the budget hole and the other half would go to the auto theft authority.

"I actually support this ridiculous idea," Wilkison said. "Isn’t it ironic that our only solution to the crisis ... is to double the tax and take $1 for the state and say please leave the $1 you promised the ratepayer you would use it for."

The measure that would increase the fee and keep the authority going is currently attached to HB 1541. If that bill doesn't pass, Hansen said, the authority is sunk. He said it's more disingenous to insurance ratepayers to totally sweep the $1 fee than to double it and at least use half of it for the purpose it was intended.

Without auto theft prevention task forces, Hansen said, car thefts would increase, insurance premiums would skyrocket and Texans would end paying even more. Auto theft rates have fallen by at least 50 percent since 1991. From 2002 to 2009, departments that received grants from the authority recovered more than $1 billion worth of stolen vehicles, including some from Mexico

"There's a whole den of theives out there that we just keep at bay because we screw with them," he said. "The moment they read in the paper that we're gone — hang on."

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