January 31, 2013
A proposed constitutional amendment, filed by Texas Senator Kirk Watson on Thursday, would end the state’s deceptive, long-standing practice of diverting money away from the necessities it’s meant for and using it for other, less transparent purposes.
“We must end the debt, diversions and deception that have played too great a role in Texas’ budget process for too long,” Senator Watson said. “This amendment will move Texas away from the deceptive practice of collecting money for one popular purpose and using it for something else. And my legislation will do it in a responsible way that recognizes Texans’ short-term budget needs as well as the legal issues that have made this such a confounding issue.”
The measure – Senate Joint Resolution 24 – represents the latest step in Senator Watson’s long-standing, multi-session effort to reform Texas government with honest accounting and greater transparency. He unveiled his proposal following a press conference on the needs of Texas parks – particularly the fire-ravaged Bastrop State Park – and bipartisan efforts to end diversions of parks money. Senator Watson said he is committed to addressing the overall problem and the effects it has on necessities that Texans rely on.
“I deeply love Texas. And I believe Texas can do better – much better – in showing taxpayers how the state is spending their money,” Senator Watson said. “Texas is facing a deep honesty deficit right now. It’s created a big hole in the budget – one so big that a responsible, candid solution won’t work if it attempts to solve it overnight. But it’s well past time to come up with a plan for ending diversions and taking steps to do so. SJR 24 does both.”
SJR 24 targets fees that the state collects for purposes such as parks, clean air and hospital trauma facilities, but then diverts to certify (or allow for) more spending in the budget.
For more than 20 years, budget writers have allowed balances to accumulate in these dedicated funds, refusing to spend all of the money that the fees generate. A powerful but little-known law (found in Section 403.095 of the Texas Government Code and known as the Funds Consolidation provision) has allowed the Comptroller to use the money hoarded in fund balances to certify a higher level of spending in the budget.
According to the Comptroller’s office, the legislature in 2001 diverted a total of $1.6 billion in this way. In the current budget, that total was projected to rise to $4.95 billion, according to a 2011 report.
As this problem has escalated, it has escaped reform efforts, in part due to fears that ending diversions would make the budget harder to balance. The Funds Consolidation bill perpetuating the practice has traditionally passed very late in the legislative session with little attention. An amendment proposed by Senator Watson to begin curtailing these diversions failed in 2011 on a party-line vote.
How SJR 24 Will Help:
SJR 24 would take meaningful and prudent steps to wean the state from this less-than-transparent process:
As a proposed constitutional amendment, SJR 24 requires passage by two-thirds of the Texas Senate and House of Representatives each, as well as ratification by voters in November 2011. It does not require the Governor’s signature.