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Bill Would End Diversion of Auto Theft Prevention Funds

A bill by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would restore dedicated funds to a state agency that has helped recover 1.6 million stolen vehicles in Texas. In recent years, lawmakers diverted the funds to help balance the state budget.

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A state program that has aided in the recovery of 1.6 million stolen vehicles and $11.6 billion in property since 1991 could again receive funds that advocates argue should never have been diverted in the first place. 

The Texas Automobile Theft Prevention Authority was created in 1991 to combat vehicle theft in Texas by issuing grants to police forces. The agency, which was also charged with fighting burglary and renamed the Texas Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, originally received money through a dedicated fund paid for with fees that all Texans pay in their auto insurance premiums. In 1997, legislators decided to remove the dedicated status of the authority's fund. That meant lawmakers could use the money to help balance the budget instead of fight car theft and burglaries. 

Senate Bill 626, which was heard and left pending in committee on Monday, would reinstate the dedicated account and ensure that money collected through insurance fees would go to fund the authority. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, author of the bill, said that lawmakers broke their promise to fund the program, and he is looking to fix that.

“There is a use for that money, and we ought to be using it for that purpose,” he said.

The authority is currently funded with an annual $2 fee on all Texas auto insurance policies. Half of the fee goes into the general state budget, and the other dollar goes to the authority.

The funding scheme came about in 2011, when the authority narrowly escaped fiscal extinction. That year, the budget plan initially called for taking all of the fees collected — insured Texans paid a $1 annual fee then — and using the money to balance the budget, which was expected to fall about $27 billion short of the state's needs. To keep the authority viable, lawmakers decided to double the fee, using half for theft and burglary prevention and half to help balance the budget. Despite the deal, Lt. Tommy Hansen, of the Galveston County Sheriff's Department, a member of the legislative committee of the Texas Association of Vehicle Theft Investigators, said the authority is still not receiving the full amount of funds it was promised. 

Millions of dollars, he said, are still being diverted for other uses. Diversion is a practice lawmakers have long used to help balance the state budget. In January, the Legislative Budget Board released a study that found that dependence on diverting funds grew from about 2.6 percent of the budget in the 2002-03 biennium to 6.2 percent in the 2012-13 biennium.

Hansen told the Senate Finance Special Committee on Fiscal Matters during the Monday hearing that the authority has reduced Texas auto thefts from 164,000 in 1991 to fewer than 80,000 in 2011.

“Wal-Mart would like to have that kind of return on their investment," he said. “This is a tremendous service to the citizens of the state.”

Hansen said the authority is particularly concerned over border violence connected to vehicle theft, and a growing rate of truck and cargo theft. He said that if the authority were given access to the new funds, it would replace outdated equipment and invest in new technology. The funding, he said, would also ease the financial burden on sheriffs across the state, who have been picking up the tab for auto theft and burglary prevention because of the lack of state dollars. 

The program uses 200 officers statewide in local task forces, which help aid in the investigation of vehicle burglaries and thefts.

Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson said that without the auto theft and burglary authority grants his office might not have the resources to fight vehicle thieves who often flee across the state to El Paso or South Texas.

“It is critical for those of us in municipalities and sheriff’s offices to have that tool in our toolboxes to protect our citizens,” Wilson said. 

Managing editor Brandi Grissom contributed to this report. 

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