I’ve been writing about the goings-on in Austin. How our legislators are robbing Peter to pay Paul. How their “No New Taxes” is not necessarily the truth. It is simply a matter of semantics. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and one man’s fee is simply another tax on the taxpayer.
To add insult to injury many of the fees that the legislature now wants to redirect are for very good causes. Previous legislatures have passed bills to collect these fees for a good reason. Now they are going to change the rules in the middle of the game, and the sad thing is not even tell us the rules have been changed.
What follows is an article printed earlier this month in the Austin American Statesman by Jason Embry. Just wanted y’all to know that I am not the only one out there that wants to make the voters aware of what is really going on in Austin.
The 'unconscionable' practice that Texas can't quit Jason Embry, Commentary
In the middle of the past decade, when tax collections were so robust that politicians could legitimately boast about state budget surpluses, lawmakers couldn't kick their habit of collecting fees for one purpose and spending them on something else.
So you can imagine how tempting those fees are now that surpluses have become shortfalls.
They've done it with license-plate fees that are supposed to go toward the spaying and neutering of animals. They did it with sales taxes that were supposed to go toward state parks. But perhaps the most tempting stack of cash has always been the System Benefit Fund.
Lawmakers set up the fund in the late 1990s as they deregulated the electric market. Texans in deregulated markets would pay a fee on their electric bills to give low-income Texans in those markets an electricity discount.
The fee, about a dollar per month for customers, is still going strong. The discount? Not so much.
Lawmakers have in recent years spent only some of the money on the electric discount, with the rest of it used to help balance the state budget. The fund is projected to have more than $750 million by the end of the current budget year, with only about $135 million going toward electric discounts.
State leaders have directed most agencies to cut 7.5 percent from their budgets this year, which would take about $10 million out of the benefit program. Then Gov. Rick Perry's appointees on the Public Utility Commission voted in December to reduce the discount by an additional $31 million. And last week, citing lower energy prices and the need to look at all of the state's programs, Perry's aides suggested that House budget-writers could save about $35 million more by making even further reductions.
In other words, it's not enough that more than $600 million collected from a fee designed to help low-income Texans pay their electric bills isn't actually going toward helping them pay their electric bills. Or that what began as a year-round discount has become one that's given only in the five hottest months of the year. Perry and his appointees think even fewer of those dollars should go toward the electric discount.
"We're taking it from people who cannot afford to come up here and lobby," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat and one of the creators of the fund.
There's a larger point here. The fact that state leaders can't stop collecting the fee and others like it, but don't think that they can afford to spend the money on its intended purpose, indicates that the state's tax structure cannot support this fast-growing state. Or, at least, it cannot keep up with the Legislature's spending habits. And that's why the Legislature uses such tricks. Besides, if there is more money in the fund than can be used for the stated purpose, why do Texans still pay the monthly charge on their electric bills?
One Texan addressed the problem rather bluntly in a 2006 letter to the PUC, saying the fee should go toward the electric discount or else the state should stop collecting it.
"It is unconscionable for the money to be collected and not go to the citizens it was designed to help," he wrote.
Well said, Governor Perry.