Tuesday, September 02, 2014

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Straus: Stop accounting tricks

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House Speaker Joe Straus called for truth in budgeting, Monday, asking lawmakers to make sure the fees paid by Texans go to their intended purposes. Straus says the long, accepted practice of diverting fees generated for specific purposes to certify the state budget, instead of being spent on their intended purpose has to stop.

For decades those fees have been used as part of "funds consolidation," an accounting trick meant to balance the budget.

"It's been a long, accepted practice in good times and in bad times, and there's never going to be an easy time to deal with this," Straus said.

Straus asked a House subcommittee on appropriations to consider how to make the budget process more transparent.

"I'm not saying today that we need to cut $5 billion to straighten this out. What I am saying is that we should be honest in our budgeting and we should collect fees for their intended purpose or stop collecting them," Straus said.

According to Straus, lawmakers have stockpiled nearly $5 billion in dedicated accounts to balance the budget. Examples include fees charged to drunk drivers that are supposed to go to hospital trauma centers. Instead of spending that money, lawmakers keep it in an account where it can be used to balance the budget.

Texas Hospital Association spokesperson Denise Rose says because hospitals do not receive the full amount, each year there’s a possibility of less care, especially in rural areas that can't keep centers going on their own dime.

"Our half, we've gotten portions appropriated, but never the full amount," Rose said. "It's a chunk of money that's helpful to a lot of communities, and I think it just increases the strain on hospital facilities and the safety nets and will end up being passed down in some form or fashion."

In a statement Straus said, "This move toward greater transparency will require discipline and tough choices, but I am confident that the House is up to the challenge. In the end, Texans will have a budget that is fairer, simpler and more straightforward."

Austin State Senator Kirk Watson, who championed the Honesty Agenda during the last legislative session, said he is pleased with the call for transparency by the speaker.

"I’m very encouraged by the Speaker’s comments today on the vital issue of ending the diversion of dedicated funds – taxes or fees that Texans pay for specific purposes such as parks, hospitals, and utility bill relief, but that instead are used to certify the budget," Watson said in a press release. "We need to start working on these reforms right now, especially given the budget uncertainties we know we will face next year. And I will work with the Speaker and any other public official in Texas to truly reform the system and ensure taxpayers’ money is used for its intended purpose."

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