In a campaign commercial, Attorney General Greg Abbott rolls down a freeway ramp next to a stalled line of cars, ready with a self-deprecating wisecrack: “A guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic on some roads in Texas.”
Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, proposes to spend billions more for roads “without raising taxes, fees or tolls” — paying for it by “insuring money dedicated for roads will be spent only on roads, and no more taking highway funds by the Legislature to pay for their pet projects.”
Perhaps it is not the program he means, but the biggest recipient of those redirected highway dollars is the Texas Department of Public Safety, which not only polices the highways but also, lately, the state’s border with Mexico. Abbott is not making up the part about pet projects, but one person’s pet project is another’s essential program. A small slice of the transportation pie — $11.9 million — goes to Abbott’s own office for legal work on transportation and public safety matters.
This is one of those rare moments when a bit of budget legerdemain becomes a political issue. To avoid tax increases while keeping state services going, lawmakers have diverted money from its original intended uses. Over the last few years, they have had more money available — thanks mainly to the current oil and gas boom — and have started cleaning up some of their spending habits.
Some, like state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, have been harping on this for the better part of a decade, playing the part of the dietitian telling budget writers to lay off the doughnuts. Now it is in vogue.
“Nobody wanted to talk about it,” Watson said. “Now everybody wants to talk about it.”
The state actually has enough money to pull this off, especially if lawmakers take care of the shift over several budgets instead of all at once. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. has picked up the idea, suggesting well before Abbott and other candidates did that lawmakers should stop raiding the transportation budget.
But there is a catch: That means the diverted money has to be replaced, and that means more spending.
It is a lot of money. One trick involves leaving dedicated money unspent and using those accounts to balance the state budget, in effect borrowing unused funds to pay for other programs. Those accounts had $4.9 billion in them two years ago, up from $3.7 billion two years before that.
Diversions — the budget writers’ term for taking money that is intended for one thing and spending it on another — is what Abbott and others, from both political parties, are chasing. In the current budget, only 83 percent of the $10.9 billion in the state’s highway account goes to the Department of Transportation. The biggest diversion — $812.6 million — goes to the Department of Public Safety, on the grounds that the highway patrol and the highways it is patrolling are closely related.
In 2013, Watson came close to passing legislation phasing out the shell games in the budget over eight years. It fell short, but lawmakers did make some changes. The Lufkin Tourist Information Center used to get $150,000 from the highway account. The Texas Historical Commission was in there, too. About $1 billion was directed back to its stated purpose in the current budget.
What was once a budget secret is now a political cause, as this year’s campaign talk demonstrates. Watson said he would file legislation again after the November election.
Meanwhile, Straus has the House working on a plan to leave $1.3 billion in the highway fund that would otherwise go elsewhere. He has done this before, without success, starting the 2013 session with a plea for budget repairs. This year, he started earlier, and with a new governor and lieutenant governor taking office in January, he might gain some allies.
All they have to do is figure out how to either cut the budget to fit or find $1.3 billion to pay for the state police and the Department of Motor Vehicles and other items caught in the “pet projects” net.
The issue is ripe, if lawmakers are willing to spend some money or cut some programs.