Every year, Texans pay millions in fees to help fund the state’s two major clean-air programs. Millions of Texans pay a little extra when they get their car tested for emissions or transfer a vehicle title. The money adds up. Currently, the two programs total over $632 million. Yet very little of that money actually goes to reduce smog in Texas’ big cities.
The funds are supposed to go toward state-mandated programs to get dirty engines off the road or the work-site. However, the Texas Legislature is increasingly hoarding the money to help balance the state budget.
The state now withholds 88 cents of every dollar collected in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, said Shannon Stevenson, program manager at the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
One program, the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP), provides businesses and industry with incentives to purchase less-polluting engines. About half of TERP is funded through a fee on vehicle title transfers—$20 in counties that don’t meet federal smog standards and $15 in other counties.
Under the draft Senate budget, the state would collect an estimated $772 million for TERP over the next two years, but would spend only $133.6 million, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
“TERP money, when it’s spent, is a very effective program,” said Adrian Shelley, community outreach coordinator at Air Alliance Houston. “It’s a shame that they’re taking what’s an effective program and diluting it in these ways to artificially balance the budget.”
The other program, the Low-Income Vehicle Repair, Retrofit, and Accelerated Retirement Program (LIRAP), helps low-income people pay for repairs on old vehicles or replace clunkers with newer, cleaner-burning vehicles. Under the draft Senate budget, the state would collect an estimated $80 million for LIRAP during the 2014-2015 biennium, but would spend just $12.5 million, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
Big cities across the state are demanding major changes to the air quality programs in response to the state’s hijacking their funds. The North Central Texas Council of Governments, an association of 16 county governments in the DFW area, wants the funds either fully restored or for the state to let the locals take over. The Council administers LIRAP for the state.
“Our local and elected officials see it as county money that’s not coming back to the county,” said Shannon Stevenson, program manager at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Notably, LIRAP is funded solely by fees assessed in counties that are close to, or actually in, “non-attainment” of smog standards: DFW, Houston-Galveston-Brazoria and Austin-Round Rock.
Without adequate funding, Texas’ polluted urban areas are struggling to make progress.
With so little money coming into the program, the North Central Texas Council of Governments has stopped offering rebates for new cars in the Metroplex. Stevenson said the counties are struggling to even offer vehicle repairs.
The Capital Area Council of Governments, an association of ten Austin-area counties, has considered a plan to opt out of the program altogether, said Adele Noel, air quality project manager for Travis County.
“Honestly, we cannot operate if they do not give us more money,” Noel said.