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Straus: Process to End Budget Diversions Starts Now

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus called on lawmakers Monday to start figuring out how to stop diverting billions of dollars in dedicated taxes and fees that are being used to balance state budgets.

July 9th, 2012: Speaker Joe Straus speaks to reporters

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Monday said the Texas House must get serious about undoing billions of dollars in budget diversions.

Straus stopped by a subcommittee hearing of the House Appropriations Committee to ask House members to address dozens of taxes and fees that were originally created to fund specific programs but are repeatedly tapped by lawmakers to help balance the state budget.

“We should make our budget more transparent by spending these fees for their intended purposes or not collecting them at all instead of using them for certification,” Straus said.

The taxes and fees at issue hit virtually every Texan at some point. Examples include the surcharge tacked onto utility bills and the extra $1,000 fine added to some DWI offenders’ penalties.

Last year, the Legislature raised $7.1 billion in dedicated revenue but only appropriated $2.2 billion to their intended uses, according to the state comptroller. The remaining $4.9 billion was diverted to shore up the state’s general revenue fund.

Straus tasked the subcommittee – formally called the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Articles VI, VII and VIII — to make recommendations before next year’s session on how the Legislature could plan to undo the diversions from dedicated taxes and fees and create a “fairer, simpler and more straightforward” budget. He acknowledged that it may take longer than one session, as the Legislature will need to find revenue elsewhere or cut the budget to make up the difference.

“I’m not saying today that we need to cut $5 billion to straighten this out,” Straus said. “What I am saying is that we should be honest in our budgeting. We should collect fees for their intended purpose or stop collecting them.”

Straus will be facing a 2013 challenge from state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who has filed to run for speaker in the next session. 

For more than a decade, Texas lawmakers have criticized the budget diversions between legislative sessions only to find state budget writers unwilling to unwind them when planning out their next budget.

In 2006, Gov. Rick Perry made the practice a campaign issue in his re-election campaign and called on state lawmakers to end “disingenuous, money-shifting shell games.”

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Economy State government Budget Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature