Update: see new information below on deadlines for applying for assistance.
The program seems fairly straightforward: A small surcharge on vehicle registrations went to help low-income motorists in Texas’ smoggier urban areas fix or trade in older, high-emissions vehicles, to help reduce air pollution.
But that was before the Texas Legislature’s penchant for diverting funds from the purposes for which they are collected kicked in.
Now the program has been canceled but the counties involved want it reinstated. And in the meantime they want the state to hand over $142 million intended for the repair program that is being held back.
For now, the disputed money is being held in the state’s Clean Air account rather than being released to the counties to help clean the air. And the agency in charge of that account has a reputation for not spending other money intended for other clean air programs.
Clear so far?
The Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance Program has been in effect since 2002 in 16 counties in and around Austin, Houston and Dallas. The registration surcharge of $2 to $6 per vehicle funded the effort. Low-income drivers with cars at least 10 years old or that can’t meet local air quality standards are eligible for assistance. They can receive up to $600 to upgrade emissions control equipment on an existing vehicle and up to $3,500 to help with vehicle replacement.
In 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed legislation to continue funding the program. All three regions halted collection of the surcharge, but not until several months after the veto. That means that some money held by the counties and an even larger amount held by the state remains to be spent, and applications for help are still being accepted. In Houston and Dallas, the last day to apply for assistance is April 8. In Travis and Williamson counties, the deadline for applying is May 1.
“The state is taking money that was collected from our residents for a specific purpose, and they get to decide what to do with it,” said Jon White, Travis County’s director for natural resources and environmental quality.
That’s wrong, he said. “We should have the freedom to spend that money on something relevant to air quality and vehicles.”
Abbott said he ended the program because the money wasn’t getting spent and the program “has done little to provide measurable improvements to air quality” in the areas it covers.
Program administrators in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-Galveston areas disagreed. They contend the plan has helped reduce emissions and provided funding for local law enforcement to battle fraudulent emissions tests.
However, a lot of the money raised by the surcharge never made it to the low-income repair fund in the first place. Legislators in 2013 siphoned off almost 90 percent of the money for other purposes. Since then, White said, legislators have gradually reduced their removals of money from the fund. He thinks it should all come back to the counties.
“We should also have had that money as well,” he said. “It was collected for one thing, and it came from our residents.”
All money collected through vehicle registrations goes to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The surcharges collected in the 16 counties are then separated out, but they don’t go directly to the counties.
The legislature votes each session on what portion of the surcharge collections will go to the counties. The portion is then divided among the counties based on the numbers of vehicles that underwent air emissions testing the previous year. The rest of the money goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Clean Air account.
TCEQ, however, has no better record of spending money for the purposes for which it was ostensibly collected. For the last five years, the fund balance has averaged $200 million intended for the numerous air quality programs around Texas.
Travis County and the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which manages the repair fund money for nine Metroplex counties, are urging local governments to back proposed legislation that would reinstitute the levy on vehicle registrations. Travis County and the North Texas council are also seeking to keep the surplus funds they now hold. In North Texas, the amount is $18 million and in Travis it is $800,000.
Under the measure, which has a Senate counterpart, all the money collected would go to local programs in the three regions.
Among the possible uses outlined in the bill are to purchase a remote system to flag emissions violations, to increase funding to local law enforcement, and “enhance transportation system improvements.”
The bill would also return to the counties the surcharge money currently being held by TCEQ.
“We’re working hard to try to get your money back that has been collected from all the residents over these many years,” Chris Klaus, an air quality planning manager at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, told attendees of the group’s regional transportation meeting in February.
A spokeswoman for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which manages the program in five counties, declined to answer specific questions about the future of the program and the unspent funds.
Officials with the North Texas council did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment for this story.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development in 2017, Monty Gage, commander of the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office task force on emissions, said the program in North Texas helps his operation fight the practice of mechanics taking payoffs in exchange for passing unqualified vehicles and that eliminating it will “limit our ability to expand our unit.”
But much of the money has gone unused: As of 2017, the program had taken in $360 million and spent $200 million.
The program has been marketed at dealerships through brochures, dedicated websites and through social media via pre-designed posts for Facebook and Twitter.
White acknowledged that in Travis County, the program has been poorly marketed. But he added that the $600 for repairs falls short of what a repair for an emissions violation would cost.
“These are things where it’s possible your catalytic converter isn’t working, and those are much more than a $600 repair,” he said.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].