SBF2Most Texans agree fiscal accountability is a good thing. We expect our money to be used wisely, and for its intended purpose. And when it’s not, Texans have a right to be irritated.

So what should we make of the Texas Legislature’s treatment of the System Benefit Fund? Instead of directing that money to its intended purpose — to help low-income electricity ratepayers — the Legislature has used much of it for budget-balancing purposes.

Many lawmakers say they find the shell game deplorable. And yet the Legislature has adopted budget after budget that won’t balance without it. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, one of the Legislature’s leading advocates for the poor, recently filed a bill intended to address the issue. But whether lawmakers adopt the bill is anybody’s guess. “The state is now like an addict on this money,” Turner said recently.

By allowing money to accumulate in the System Benefit Fund, the legislature can run deficits elsewhere — and still keep the state’s overall budget in balance. By the end of the 2013 fiscal year there will be more than $800 million sitting unused in the account, according to the Public Utility Commission. The Legislative Budget Board separately shows the state will have collected $309 million for it duringSBF3 the two-year budget cycle ending in 2013, but will only have spent $169 million.

The System Benefit Fund is a creature of Senate Bill 7, the legislation that brought retail electric deregulation to Texas in 1999. The fund was meant to help electricity customers, especially those of modest means. By law, it is supposed to pay for bill discounts, home weatherization assistance, and customer education. All Texas electricity customers pay for it through a fee on their electric bills.

SBF1But beginning in 2003 the legislature began diverting the money to support the budget — an accounting move that arguably turned what was a special-purpose fee into a full-fledged tax. It also meant that tens of thousands of low-income Texans ended up paying more for electricity than they otherwise would have.

Rep. Turner’s House Bill 550 would change the manner of the collections, in essence moving new money to a place beyond the reach of legislative budget writers. Whether it passes or not is anybody’s guess. A similar bill last session failed to get out of pokies

— R.A. Dyer

What is the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power?

TCAP is a coalition of more than 160 cities and other political subdivisions that purchase electricity in the deregulated market for their own governmental use. Because high energy costs can impact municipal budgets and the ability to fund essential services, TCAP, as part of its mission, actively promotes affordable energy policies. High energy prices also place a burden on local businesses and home consumers.