Criticism mounts over divergence of System Benefit Fund

Tens of thousands of low-income Texans will pay higher-than-necessary electric bills this summer because

Sen. Wendy Davis has expressed alarm.

Sen. Wendy Davis has expressed alarm.

a special fund to help them has gone largely untapped.

That’s the word from several news outlets, which are reporting that only a small fraction of the state’s System Benefit Fund has been appropriated for its intended purpose. The SBF was created in 1999  to help poor Texans pay electric bills. It is financed through a special-purpose fee on wholesale electricity.

By the end of last year the fund contained more than $600 million, but only $30 million of it has been appropriated to lower this year”s electric bills. The remainder has become part of an accounting trick to help balance the state budget.

Given the record heat this summer, it’s not surprising that the System Benefit Fund has been in the news. In the CBS News segment, below, state Sen. Wendy Davis expressed alarm. “We have to be more transparent and if we’re not going to use money for its intended purpose, then we should stop collecting it for that purpose,” she said. Gov. Rick Perry likewise has said the System Benefit Fund should be used for its intended purpose.

The Houston Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News and Corpus Christi Caller-Times all have weighed-in critically. In the meantime several civic and religious groups have mounted voluntary drives to distribute fans to elderly Texans. The Public Utility Commission also has posted a number of conservation tips on its website.

— R.A. Dyer