Joe Straus: Texas House delivers budget transparency

UTAustin_logoBy Joe Straus

StrausThe legislative session that ended June 1 produced important achievements, from a balanced budget to tax relief to improvements in transportation.

Along with those accomplishments, many of us in the House are especially proud of the steps we took to make the state budget more transparent.

From time to time over the past several years, you may have read in the newspaper about a growing problem in the way Texas manages your money.

The state would collect a fee for a specific purpose and that money would go into what is called a dedicated account. For example, a fee collected from drunk drivers goes into an account that is dedicated to improving trauma care at hospitals.

The state budget has hundreds of these dedicated accounts.

In the early 1990s, legislators discovered that it would be easier to balance the budget by leaving some of the money in those dedicated accounts unspent.

They passed a law saying that whatever money was sitting in those accounts could be counted for “certification,” which is the official process by which the state comptroller says that the state will collect enough money to fund the budget that legislators have written for the next two years.

Over time, more of those unspent dollars in dedicated accounts piled up. In a fast-growing state with a justified aversion to tax increases, these available piles of money made it easier to balance the budget.

But the state was using fee revenue far differently than how it had promised. And this wasn’t small change. The practice built and built over time, to the point where almost $5 billion was sitting in dedicated accounts.

Three years ago, my House colleagues and I set out to end this.

We knew that it wouldn’t happen overnight, but believed that we had to guide the state toward a more transparent use of these dollars.

The House began to closely study the issue in the summer of 2012, and the next year, we were able to reduce the amount of money sitting in dedicated accounts by about $1 billion. We reduced it by about $1 billion more in this year’s legislative session.

As in 2013, we got there in part by using some dedicated accounts for their intended purpose. For example, we allocated $195 million from the trauma account to the hospitals that have long been owed that money.

In other cases, we stopped collecting the fees that were flowing into these accounts, resulting in a sizable tax cut for many Texans.

We eliminated a $200 professional fee on engineers, land surveyors, optometrists and other professionals. Because of this relief, more than 600,000 Texans will save a combined $125 million annually — the largest tax cut on individuals passedthis year.

Some of the money in the State Highway Fund (which largely comes from the gas tax) has for decades been diverted to other programs.

We ended those diversions this year, providing an additional $1.3 billion for transportation.

We also ensured that almost all of the sales tax that is collected on sporting goods will be used as once intended — to maintain and improve state parks.

In other words, not only did we make the budget more transparent, but those efforts resulted in real benefits for Texas: lower fees on professionals, a boost for transportation and a consistent revenue stream for a parks system that is one of this state’s great treasures.

I’m proud of the House’s work, and I assure you we’re going to keep it up.

It’s the hard work of Texans that allows us to have a state budget in the first place. The least we can do in return is be honest and straightforward about how we are using your money.

Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, represents Bexar County in the Texas House, where he also serves as speaker.


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