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Thanks for helping us balance the budget, fishermen

The Chron’s Shannon Tompkins explains how budgetary shenanigans have an adverse effect on Texas’ hunters and fishers.

Every year, tens of millions of dollars in hunting and fishing license fees are left sitting in the state account used to fund Texas wildlife, fisheries and boating programs. Those millions of dollars in Fund 9 account balances – $31 million at the end of this month, jumping to an estimated $48 million this time next year and as much as $64 million by Aug. 31, 2013 – are there because the Legislature holds those millions hostage in the scheme used to produce, on paper at least, the balanced budget that it is required to fashion.

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For a state to qualify to receive the federal funds, it must pass a state law prohibiting using hunting and fishing license revenue for anything other than wildlife and fisheries programs.

If a state legislature dips into hunting and fishing license accounts to pay for, say, roads or hospitals or any other program, the state stands to lose all of its federal excise tax reimbursements.

So, as much as the Texas Legislature might be tempted to stick its hands into a flush Fund 9, particularly in times such as these when the state faces crippling general-revenue shortfalls, the prospect of losing that $40 million in federal money is incentive enough to prevent such plundering.

But the Legislature has found other ways of using that Fund 9 money without actually spending it.

For TPWD to spend money from the Fund 9 pot, that money has to be appropriated by the Legislature through its budget and appropriations acts.

By appropriating only some of the license money, the Legislature can count the “unappropriated balance” in Fund 9 on the positive side of the ledger when calculating the overall state budget.

This tactic is not restricted to hunting and fishing license revenue. It happens with revenue generated from the sale of vehicle license plates (horned toad, bluebonnet, etc.) benefiting state parks, wildlife, hunting and freshwater fishing.

All of these “unappropriated balances” – money Texans spent believing all of the dollars would be used to fund programs they voluntarily support by paying additional fees for the specialized license plates – are rat-holed and left dormant in accounts as a way to offset negative balances in other state programs.

Couple points here. First, if you’ve been paying attention you know that this sort of prestidigitation is as old as the Texas constitution itself. It’s easy to do and it’s mostly painless, unless you’re directly affected by a program whose revenues are held hostage. State Sen. Kirk Watson has advocated legislation that would mandate using dedicated funds only for their intended purpose, but for a variety of reasons they mostly haven’t gone anywhere.

Second, the hunters and fishers are lucky in that the fee revenues they generate will eventually be used for their intended purpose. They’re not being actively re-appropriated into general revenue like some other dedicated funds. As I’ve said before, just go say the words System Benefit Fund to Rep. Sylvester Turner, then stand back and watch the fireworks. It could be worse, that’s all I’m saying.

Finally, the main point that you need to take away from all this is that the underlying cause for this kind of trickery is the pernicious idea that budgets need to be “balanced” as of some arbitrary date. All that really matters, all that really should matter, is whether or not current and future cash flow can accommodate current and projected expenses. The fact that we claim to “balance” our budgets by deferring payments, pretending that certain things will cost less than we know they will, and shuffling funds from one pocket to another should convince us that this model is a complete fiction that does us far more harm than good. I don’t expect that to happen, of course, so we’ll continue to get the kind of budgeting we’ve asked for. Just don’t act surprised or outraged when it happens.

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5 Comments

  1. […] disagree with raiding the System Benefit Fund, but that sort of chicanery was par for the course this session. Is there anyone out there who thinks Ritter’s plan would not […]

  2. […] course the System Benefit Fund, which I’ve mentioned several times before. There’s also hunting and fishing license fee funds, which are supposed to go to the Parks and Wildlife Department, and there’s funds from the […]

  3. […] would be the System Benefit Fund that gets frozen, along with such exotica as hunting and fishing license fee funds and the sale of specialty license plates. It’s the oldest trick in the budget-writer’s […]

  4. […] to TPWD. That’s all fine and dandy, but as long as revenues dedicated to the TPWD can be hijacked for budget “balancing” purposes, the effect will be limited. The state still lacks adequate funding to maintain state parks and […]

  5. […] course, we do this all the time. See once again the System Benefit Fund that gets frozen, hunting and fishing license fee funds, the sale of specialty license plates, and red light camera funds. I’ve beaten this horse […]