EVEN MORE ON THE STATE BUDGET: FEE AND FINE INCREASE AUTHORITY ABOUNDS

Previous editions of the Legislative Update have reported on the drastic cuts proposed for the state budget.  Those cuts will affect cities through direct cuts to various programs that benefit cities. 

Those cuts are probably just the beginning of the effects on cities from state-level cuts.  For example, state agency fees on cities and city officials and employees will likely increase after this session.  We got a glimpse of this last session with increases in fees imposed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).  Those 2009 TCEQ fee increases were necessary because the state refused to increase funding for the agency with general revenue.

The exact same scenario is shaping up this session, as well.  League staff, while reviewing bills, have seen several bills relating to state agencies – most commonly sunset bills – that would essentially give those agencies carte blanche to increase fees to cover the costs of operations.

In fact, the process of “fixing” state budget gaps with fee increases on the backs of cities and city officials has already begun.  Under existing authority, the Texas Commission on Fire Protection (TCFP) announced last week, with little additional information, that it would hold an emergency meeting regarding the possibility of “raising fees” on Monday, March 14.

Even with the short notice, the League submitted comments on the proposal, and several fire departments showed up in opposition.  In spite of opposition, the TCFP approved the proposal to raise firefighter certification fees from $35 to $85 per firefighter.  To listen to the hearing, go to http://www.tcfp.state.tx.us/calendar/archive/2011/comm0311-am.wma.  (Technically, the TCFP approved the fee increase for publication. The proposal will now go to the Texas Register for a 30-day comment period, and the TCFP will consider it for final adoption at its April 28, 2011, meeting.)

The TCFP is hardly to blame.  With the state’s budget woes, it simply can’t afford to pay for many of the essential services it currently provides.  Many legislators have sworn to not raise taxes.  Where does that leave them?  In many cases, it leaves them to balance their budgets on the backs of cities and city officials.  To add insult to injury, many state lawmakers will probably proudly proclaim that they balanced the state budget “without raising taxes.”  From the city perspective, “a rose by any other name…”


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