What do you call it when an organization collects money for one stated purpose, but spends it on another?
In some cases, you might call it fraud.
If, for example, you donated $1 a month to a group claiming it would feed widows and orphans, but actually spent the money on sports cars and pole dancers, you’d call that fraud.
You might call the people responsible for it con men guilty of a bait-and-switch scheme.
In the context at hand, however, you’d have to call it business as usual, or since we’re talking about the Texas Legislature, maybe “bidness” as usual.
Lawmakers in 1991 tagged a $1 surcharge onto the bills of people paying for automobile insurance with the stated purpose of funding auto-crimes task forces across the state. It was a reasonable enough governmental action. Everybody owning a car kicks in a few dollars to help improve the odds that stolen cars get found and car thieves get prosecuted.
That clean, reasonable transaction actually happened for awhile, but politics and money being what they are, it didn’t last long. In 1997, lawmakers decided they’d devote 25 cents of each $1 to auto-crimes task forces and send 75 cents to the general fund.
That was dubious enough, but in keeping with tradition, the legislature in 2011 made things even more so.
At that time, pilgrims from auto-crimes task forces across Texas trekked to Austin to relate how they were being starved to death and to ask whether the state couldn’t give them some more of the money being collected from Texans for the stated purpose of paying for auto-crimes task forces.
The answer was “Of course not.”
What lawmakers could do, and did, was double the surcharge to $2 and promise to give task forces the added $1, plus the quarter they already were getting.
It was a brilliant move. The cops would shut up, take their $1.25 and go home, the general fund would keep its 75 cents and nobody would be the wiser.
The trouble is, the state didn’t keep its promise and kept the new dollars rather than sending them to the task forces.
Some in the auto-crimes policing world may have seen that as an insult-to-injury situation, but little did they know.
This year, like other state agencies, the Texas Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, which allocates the money to regional task forces, has been asked to cut 4 percent — about $597,000 — from its annual budget.
The task forces have at least one ally in Austin. State Rep. Travis Clardy, a Republican from Nacogdoches, has filed a bill that would create a dedicated fund for all fees collected by the authority and limit the spending of that money to task-force expenses.
“This bill promotes transparency and ensures Texas is spending its state resources on the intended purposes we promised to taxpayers,” Clardy told The Daily News.
Two companion bills are in the Texas Senate.
Unsuccessful efforts were made in 2013 and 2015 to reform auto-crimes funding and the odds of success are longer this year as lawmakers work to trim the budget.
At very least, lawmakers should change the name of the surcharge to something more accurate. The “Tax Hidden on Your Auto Insurance Policy Because We Need Money But Say We’re Against Taxes” surcharge, maybe.
• Michael A. Smith