DALLAS - Texas House Speaker Joe Straus called on lawmakers Monday to stop the practice of diverting dedicated funds to balance the state's biannual budget.
The San Antonio Republican said the 2011 Legislature put $4.9 billion of the $7.1 billion of revenue into the general fund that should have gone into dedicated funds so Comptroller Susan Combs could certify the fiscal 2012-2013 budget as balanced.
"We should make our budget more transparent by spending these fees for their intended purposes, or not collecting them at all, instead of using them for certification," he said
The revenue is generated by an assortment of fees and penalties established by the Legislature to support specific programs.
The revenue transferred through a practice known as "funds consolidation" is not appropriated or spent, Straus said, but remains as "general revenue-dedicated accounts."
"The state collects millions of dollars each year through surcharges to repeat traffic offenders and drunk drivers," Straus told a House Appropriations subcommittee. "That money is supposed to go for hospital trauma care, but much of it sits unspent so that it can be counted for budget certification."
Lawmakers allocated $2.2 billion of the expected dedicated revenues to the intended purposes in the current budget.
The Legislature deferred a $2 billion payment due in the current biennial budget into the next two-year budget cycle, he said, which should be resolved as soon as possible.
Straus said the 2011 Legislature also underfunded public education by $4 billion and funded the Medicaid program for 18 months rather than 24 months to save $5 billion.
"I'm not saying today that we need to cut $5 billion to straighten this out," he said. "What I am saying is that we should be honest in our budgeting."
He asked the committee to develop a timeframe for eliminating funds consolidation.
"This move toward greater transparency will require discipline and tough choices, but I am confident that the House is up to the challenge," Straus said. "In the end, Texans will have a budget that is fairer, simpler and more straightforward."
Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, said it would take time to eliminate a budgetary maneuver that has been going on for at least two decades.
"We need to put a lid on it," said Otto, vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "It's only going to grow.
"We didn't get here overnight and we're not going to fix it overnight."
Gov. Rick Perry in April called for the Legislature to end funds consolidation but said he would leave it to lawmakers to determine how soon that could be accomplished.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, praised Straus's comments. Watson has proposed a number of budget reforms.
"We need to start working on these reforms right now, especially given the budget uncertainties we know we will face next year," Watson said.