I keep wondering when we’re going to discover the last dedicated fund that is not being used for its original purpose but for general revenue. All I know is that we keep finding more of them, in this case fees collected from defendants in the criminal courts.
While courts assess fines to punish defendants, in theory, the dizzying array of fees and court costs, which can reach more than $600, is meant to ensure that those who use the judicial system help pay for it. But an American-Statesman analysis shows that’s not the case.
Over the years, legislators have used tens of millions of dollars collected from criminals to fund a slew of projects, many with only the faintest connection to the courts. Texas judicial administrators estimate that 1 in every 3 dollars raised through such state fees is spent on projects outside the court system — a practice critics say amounts to an undeclared tax on the state’s poor that might violate the law. Cities and counties whose courts raise much of the state money, meanwhile, complain that their courts are drastically underfunded.
Today, court costs pay for the rehabilitation of patients with head injuries. They fund research on obesity among minority children in Houston and cover the salaries of game wardens. They support three academic centers at state universities and after-school programs for kids. And they were used to pay a private company $2 million to install cameras along the Mexico border so citizen “virtual deputies” could watch online and report illegal crossings.
Last year, elected officials raided a $20 million pot collected from criminal defendants to pay for state employee pensions.
Thanks to such maneuvering, in Texas courts, a “DNA collection fee” does not necessarily pay for DNA tests, a “breath alcohol testing fee” does not always cover breath alcohol tests, and people judged guilty of victimless crimes contribute millions of dollars every year to “victims compensation.”
“We have a ‘school crossing fee’ that nobody — nobody — can tell me what comes of it,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee.
Some say requiring defendants to cover so many expenses makes sense because crime creates broad social costs encompassing police work, prisons and social programs.
“Courts do not stand alone,” said Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, chairman of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee.
And nobody disputes that many of the programs are worthy of government support.
At worst, though, such under-the-radar diversions of so-called dedicated court money could be against the law. Some judges have ruled that using fees for purposes other than that for which they were collected is unconstitutional. At that point, the money is more accurately described as a general tax.
At the very least, it is dishonest for the government to tell taxpayers it is collecting money for one thing and then use it for another, said Jim Allison of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
“If we’re not going to use a fee for a particular purpose,” he said, “we shouldn’t collect it.”
Of 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 over and over again, so other than the specifics of this case – you should definitely read the story for the details – there’s nothing new here. The budget is all sleight of hand and misdirection because the Lege is desperate to avoid having to confront the real problems, our tax system is screwed up, and people are paying for things they’re not getting. Same story, different dedicated fund. Grits has more.