Friday, September 28, 2007

"Another session, another dedicated fee raided into general revenue."

Red Light Camera Money Raided By Legislature to General Revenue


by Will Lutz
Vol. 12, Issue 8
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2007

Another session, another dedicated fee raided into general revenue.

During the 2007 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill which directs cities to surrender half their revenue from red light cameras (less administrative expenses) to the state. The statute that ordered cities to turn over their money from red light citations states that it would be dedicated to improving trauma care facilities at Texas hospitals.

Problem was, lawmakers never appropriated the money, so the Comptroller cannot cut the check, and the money is available to be certified for other general revenue spending.

In response to a direct question from Lone Star Report, Steve Janda, director of EMS and Trauma care at the Department of State Health Services, confirmed that no appropriation of red light camera money had been received.

Gov. Rick Perry has called on lawmakers to either spend dedicated fees on their dedicated purpose or quit collecting the fees from the public. It was part of Perry’s recommendations to reform the state budget process. But like many other Perry ideas last session, this one fell on deaf ears.

Despite the lack of an appropriation, Janda said the agency will prepare rules on how to distribute trauma care funding in the event the Legislature later decides to make an appropriation. The red light camera monies have to be kept in a separate account from other fees dedicated to trauma care.

Unlike the portion of traffic fines going to trauma care, state law requires that red light camera money remain in the region where it is generated. Therefore, the state has to keep red light camera monies separate and adopt separate rules.

Meanwhile, hospitals are still bracing from the raid on driver responsibility surcharges. In 2003, the Legislature passed a law placing surcharges on the driver licenses of Texans who commit multiple traffic infractions or commit a serious traffic violation, such as drunk driving.

In the deal that led to the creation of those fees, half were supposed to go to roads and half to trauma care. But the appropriations bill has spent significantly less than half on trauma care.

In the current biennium, lawmakers appropriated $51.7 million to trauma care, Janda said. They also appropriated to the trauma care fund any extra revenue during the biennium that is above the Comptroller’s revenue estimate.

The appropriation for trauma care in 2008-09 is about half what lawmakers put into it in the 2006-07 biennium. It is about a quarter of what the biennial revenue estimate suggests should enter the fund from driver responsibility charges during the current biennium.

“Nationally, motor vehicle traffic accidents account for about 41 percent of all emergency room patients, many of whom lack health insurance,” said Dinah Welsh, senior director of advocacy and policy for the Texas Hospital Association.

“Since 1999, the Texas Legislature has provided funds to help offset hospitals’ uncompensated trauma care costs. The Driver Responsibility Program established in 2003 has helped strengthen the state’s trauma system, with the number of trauma designated hospitals growing from 188 in 2003 to 242 in 2007. Despite recent criticism, this program of penalizing bad driving is helping preserve access to trauma care for all Texans across the entire state.”

Complicating matters further is a surprisingly low collection rate on the driver responsibility surcharges. Technically, most of the revenue attributed to the driver responsibility program comes from surcharges on driver licenses (basically a renewal fee) rather than fines.

Therefore, it is not technically a debt. If people don’t want to pay the fines, they can avoid them by not driving. Or they can also drive without a license and hope they don’t get caught. In fact, the number of Texans driving without a license recently has skyrocketed – so much so that the Legislature downgraded driving without a license from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor so that it can be prosecuted in Justice of the Peace courts.

A Sept. 3 story by the San Antonio Express-News’s Gary Scharrer estimated that seven out of 10 driver responsibility surcharges go unpaid. The story also noted that the Legislature passed SB 1723, which allows the Department of Public Safety to offer amnesty and make payment terms more flexible in hopes that collection of driver responsibility charges will increase.

Part of the purpose of the driver responsibility fund is to reimburse hospitals for their uncompensated care.

Federal law requires hospitals to treat emergency patients regardless of legal status or ability to pay. The Texas Hospital Association estimates that Texas hospitals incur more than $200 million in uncompensated care costs annually.

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