Low-income Texans can enjoy a discount on their electricity bills for a little longer.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday signed legislation ensuring that the remaining balance of the state’s “System Benefit Fund” would go toward that purpose.

Lawmakers created the program — funded by electric ratepayers across Texas — in 1999 to help poor families pay their utility bills in Texas’ newly regulated energy market. But they often tapped it to prop up the state’s finances, and discounts on electric bills for those in need over the years fluctuated wildly and sometimes weren’t offered at all.

In the 2013 legislative session, Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, led an effort to force lawmakers to use the money as it was intended. He succeeded, though lawmakers also ended the surcharge of 65 cents per megawatt-hour that fueled the fund, which reached more than $800 million in 2013. It was expected to be drained by September 2016.

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Since then, however, relatively mild weather and low enrollment in the program has left plenty of money in the bank­, with $227 million expected to remain by the original deadline. Turner’s House Bill 1101, now law, extends the discounts one last year.

“We have over $350 million in the fund and that balance needs to be used for its original purpose — to provide low-income individuals and seniors with a discount on their electricity bills,” Turner said in a statement last month. 

Under the law, the state Public Utility Commission will set the discount rate, aiming to drain the balance by September 2017. 

Consumer groups have applauded the effort.

“That’s an important piece of legislation — we’re talking more than $200 million in potential benefits, and I think that was good news for the low-income consumers,” Jake Dyer, a policy analyst with the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, said last month.

Texans who are eligible for food stamps or Medicaid qualify for assistance from the System Benefit Fund. The discount does not apply to people living in noncompetitive Texas electric markets, like Austin and San Antonio, or customers not served by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

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