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State not appropriating red light camera funds to trauma centers

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Not in Houston any more it's not

Sandy Greyson drove away from an Arlington meeting eight years ago, and 2 tons of irony wiped her off the road.

A red-light runner struck her passenger side, pushing the Dallas City Council member’s car into a field. Greyson suffered a broken wrist and a head wound that required 19 stitches.

She was taken to an emergency room similar to the 128 trauma centers in Texas that are supposed to benefit from the state law that allowed red-light cameras.

The law directs a portion of fines generated by the cameras toward trauma centers. But instead of helping hospitals, the money is simply piling up in Austin.

The $46 million pot earmarked for hospitals is helping lawmakers certify a balanced budget even though much of the money in state accounts can’t be used for general expenses. It’s an accounting trick that has been used for years and defended by budget writers who say such maneuvers are necessary in lean times.

Budget writers face a choice: They either have to cut spending or reduce appropriations, said Steven Polunsky, spokesman for Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who wrote the bill that set aside red-light camera funds for trauma centers.

“In the past, the state has appropriated trauma funds,” Polunsky said. “However, the state was in a difficult budgetary situation.”

In their last session, lawmakers set a record by refusing to spend $4.1 billion raised from earmarked fees and taxes. The programs that suffer include electricity discounts for the poor and, in the case of red-light ticket revenue, trauma centers.

That 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 playbook, because dedicated revenues count as general revenues for budget “balancing” purposes. If you don’t have enough general revenue, just stop appropriating dedicated revenues until everything evens out. You can then declare yourself fiscally responsible, and the only people who get screwed are the ones who thought those revenues that were supposed to be dedicated to them. Everyone else just gets hoodwinked. People like Mr. Polunsky, who conveniently overlook the fact that there is in fact a Door #3 from which to choose to deal with this situation, help to ensure that it persists. The only truly remarkable thing about this story is that it gets written so long after the session. This was as true at the time the budget was printed and posted as it is today, but for whatever the reason it doesn’t make the news until later on. While I seriously doubt it would change the outcome, stories like this should be written before the budget gets passed. At least then no one could say they didn’t know what was about to happen.

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3 Comments

  1. jonathan davis says:

    Interesting story here about Sen. Whitmire’s thoughts on red light cameras:

    http://thenewspaper.com/news/36/3691.asp

  2. Diana says:

    Disgusting.

  3. the reason this story is cropping up now is because a team of journalism students working on a project put the article together and their instructor got it published. We knew around the election in 2010 that the money wasn’t going to the trauma centers but this is the first wave of larger coverage and wouldn’t have happened without the students deciding to do this for a class project.

    Thanks for the link Jonathan, I was going to post it. You can hear the audio in Matt Patrick’s podcast at the 950 website. If you listen to the entire audio Whitmire basically says he cut a deal with mayor white to where White would make improvements to the safe clear program which Whitmire didn’t like and Whitmire helped White by blocking the 2005 Mike Jackson amendment that would have required a public vote before they put red light cameras in Houston. The amendment failed 18-13 and Whitmire bragged about killing the bill to the Chronicle later. It’s funny, if you ask Whitmire about the cameras he thinks it should be a local decision, he just doesn’t want the local voters to be the ones making that decision.