With the 82nd Legislative Session just months away, people across Texas are speculating on how state lawmakers will address the multibillion dollar budget shortfall. Projections for this shortfall from various individuals and organizations range between $9 billion and $19 billion. In addition to estimating what the budget gap will be, these folks are quick to offer potential solutions, such as cutting agency budgets, using the Rainy Day Fund or identifying brand new revenue sources. I believe the first step to solving our budget predicament is ensuring dedicated revenue is used for its intended purpose.
For far too long, Texas legislators have raided dedicated funds to finance unrelated programs and agency budgets. When a new tax or fee is imposed upon us, it's often sold to us based on what specific purpose it will be used for. Unfortunately, our legislators have not been truthful about their use of our money after they levy these taxes and fees. For example, to balance the 2010-2011 budget, the Legislature used approximately a total of $3.7 billion from the System Benefit Fund, the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan and the Designated Trauma Facility and Emergency Medical Services Account. Each of these funds was set up to collect revenue to pay for things such as stipends for low-income families to pay their electric bills, air pollution mitigation strategies and trauma care. Though fees were collected only to fund these programs, lawmakers spent $3.7 billion of the revenue received for other purposes.
Since 1986, more than $12 billion has been diverted from Fund 006, the state motor fuel tax fund. Fund 006 was created to provide for the maintenance and construction of state roadways, which is generated from a 20-cent tax on each gallon of gas that is purchased at the pump (a total of 38.4 cents is collected, 20 cents of which is collected by the state and 18.4 cents by the Federal Highway Administration). In the 2010-2011 biennium, 17 agencies that are not germane to transportation received money from Fund 006. As a result of the Legislature's cannibalization of Fund 006, we've been forced to look to other funding sources to provide desperately needed additional capacity to our state road system.
Prior to voting to approve the Texas Lottery in 1991, Texans were promised that profits from the proposed lottery would pay for public education. Since 1997, when voters approved a constitutional amendment to ensure funds would be dedicated to education, lottery profits have indeed been funded education, however, money that previously funded education has since been diverted away. Funding that was already being used for education was simply supplanted by the lottery money that we were told would fix the education funding problem.
Though state legislators set laws for each of us to follow, it seems they believe they are exempt. In local government, it is impossible to disregard laws in this way. According to the Texas Transportation Code, a commissioners court is provided the authority to set up a County Road and Bridge Fund, a fund that is dedicated to repairing and building County infrastructure. The revenue source for this fund is a vehicle registration fee that is levied by the commissioners court. As a former county commissioner, I know firsthand that if the Bexar County Commissioners Court ever attempts to use money from this fund for any purpose other than paying for roads or bridges, the District Attorney would penalize the Court.
As a complete outsider who has never participated in a state budget process, I believe this is where the Legislature has failed us. We must return honesty and integrity to the Texas Legislature by practicing fiscal restraint and pledging to use dedicated funds strictly for their intended purposes.