Texan Health Still Jeopardized While $500 Million of Clean Air Funding Still Sits Unappropriated

It just seems anti-Texan. You wouldn’t expect a state that prides itself on individual rights and fiscal responsibility to collect taxes from citizens for air quality programs that it doesn’t fully fund. But that’s exactly what has been happening year after year in Texas, while some areas of the state suffer from worsening air quality (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency just downgraded Dallas and Fort Worth air quality from moderate to serious).

In a recent post, “Budget Reductions Could Stymie Efforts for Cleaner Air,” former TCEQ Commissioner Larry Soward writes about the possibility of funds being dramatically cut from the state’s diesel emission reduction program, known as TERP (Texas Emissions Reduction Plan). He worries that the Texas legislature will use clean air funding to cover losses from other programs.

Given that Texas continues to have significant air quality challenges across the state, and that TERP was created as part of a legal, binding agreement with the EPA, it is hard to understand why the state would take actions that increase our legal liability, threaten human health, and send us backward in our efforts toward improving air quality.

Money Collected, but Not Appropriated

Originally, TERP funds were collected through the $225 out-of-state vehicle registration fee. Under Texas Tax Code 151.0515, TERP monies are now collected through a one percent surcharge on the sale, lease, or rental of new or used off-road equipment, and through a one percent surcharge on the sale, lease, or use of model 1997 and later heavy-duty diesel on-road vehicles (under Tax Code 152.0215(a)).

However, year after year, the state has failed to appropriate a significant portion of the funds that have actually been collected through these taxes. For example, the FY 2010-11 estimated revenue is $345 million while the FY 2010-11 appropriations are only $273 million.

In the latest report on the use of general revenue dedicated accounts from the state comptroller’s office, $515,310,875 is the current TERP account balance – the result of years’ worth of funds not allocated for the purposes for which they were collected.

Simply stated: TERP has been collecting funds to improve our air quality, but the legislature has chosen instead to use the funds elsewhere.

Why Care About TERP?

TERP’s basic mission is to help improve air quality through the funding of upgrades and replacements of old vehicles and equipment. A more formal mission statement can be found in the latest TERP Biennial Report to the Texas Legislature:

“. . . to reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from older heavy-duty on-road vehicles and non-road equipment by providing grants and rebates for voluntary upgrades and replacements. Since NOx is a primary precursor to the formation of ground-level ozone, the TERP program targets areas of Texas designated as nonattainment for ground-level ozone under the Federal Clean Air Act (FCAA), as well as near non-attainment areas and areas having an early action compact agreement to address ozone issues . . . Lowering NOX emissions from TERP-eligible sources remains a critical strategy for the Texas State Implementation Plan (SIP), which details how the state meets the FCAA.”

Note that last sentence . . . lowering emissions is a critical part of our state’s formal strategy for complying with the Clean Air Act. TERP was originally created because Texas was being forced to do something about air pollution and the state didn’t want to have to pass mandatory pollution control measures (e.g., prohibiting construction between 6 to 10 a.m.).

Texas pollution control measures – voluntary or mandatory, funded or unfunded – haven’t been effective enough to meet federal air quality standards set to protect our health. We have lots more work to do. Just ask Fort Worth’s DeeDra Parish, who has a child suffering from asthma – or ask residents who live in any of the areas that continue to languish on the Air Pollution Watch List (APWL) around the state.

Texas still has a long way to go toward cleaning up our air, and with proposed TERP funding cuts, that way would become even longer.

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