State Budget Writers Vote to Keep Raiding Anti-Smog Funds

l__burglar-cartoonToday brings news of the first skirmish in this year's state Legislative session over using anti-smog funds collected in DFW and other EPA "non-attainment" areas to ease budget gaps in general revenue. 

The Dallas Morning News has an account of local Dallas State Representative Helen Giddings teaming up with Houston Rep. Turner Sylvester during a House Appropriations Committeee meeting on Tuesday to make the case that the funds are desperately needed to help reduce air pollution in Texas' largest cities where unhealthy air is still the norm during "ozone season."

Everyone who gets their car inspected in North Texas pays an extra $6 that goes to the "Low-Income Repair and Replacement Assistance Program," (LIRAP). The money is supposed to be used to help low-income car owners upgrade their vehicles so they'll run cleaner. Because they can't afford to buy new vehicles as often, low income owners usually drive older cars. Older cars are dirtier cars. Fix them or upgrade them to newer cars and you reduce air pollution.

According to the folks that wear the green shades, the LIRAP fund will have approximately $77 million in unspent money at the end of August. Another $80 million is expected to be collected in the state's "non-attainment areas" over the next two years. That's a lot of car repair money. But as it turns out, state budget writers are proposing to only spend a little over $11 million in the next two years to be split up between Houston, DFW, Austin and San Antonio.

The size of the diversion has publicly angered elected officials in DFW and the other urban areas who are facing compliance with a new, stricter EPA smog standard by 2018 even as they annually fail to meet the old standard. In DFW and Houston LIRAP funding is traditionally used to build the clean air plans that must get approved by EPA. Without sufficient funds, local officials are telling the state that its next plan, due in 2015, might not get approved by EPA. You can imagine the disappointment in Austin of hearing that news.

Austin and San Antonio officials have actually threatened to pull out of the fee system all together unless they get more back of what their residents are putting in. That huffing and puffing paid off a bit Tuesday, as the Republican-led committee voted to approve an additional, but token, $1.4 million to those cities. Still, perhaps that lesson will not be lost on DFW officials, who have a long history of suffering silently as the state increasingly robs the region of its ability to control it's own air quality fate.

This was only the opening round of votes, and the House is more conservative than the Senate. But it's probably not a good sign that Rep. Giddings was the only one of at least five DFW-based members of the House Appropriations Committee quoted in News as leading the charge. Missing in Action was former Arlington City Council member and previous sometime-clean air supporter Diane Patrick, and oh yeah, the Chair of the Committee that hails from non-attainment Ellis County, Representative Jim Pitts. If the local North Texas clean air establishment can't get more help from its own players in the Lege, they're unlikely to see more money flowing their way.

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