The 911 surcharge at the bottom of your phone bill is earmarked for the Commission on State Emergency Communications. For about one-third of Texas' population - the rural areas like Burleson County - that state funding is critical.
"It's coming to the point - just like with a car or a computer or any other big piece of technology or equipment - that it's going to get to the end of its life, and it's going to become obsolete," said Kelli Merriweather, CSEC executive director.
Merriweather is working to digitally upgrade the entire state to Next Generation 911. You could send texts, pictures and video to the dispatcher in an emergency.
"It's going to be a long transition, and it will be a costly transition,” Merriweather said, who estimates CSEC has enough in the bank to pay for it nearly three times - about $178 million.
But state lawmakers will not let the agency spend that stockpile.Watson says "nobody wants to talk about" diversion of these funds, but Grits has long despised this phony-baloney budgeting maneuver, which gums up public policy decisions in every situation where it's deployed. The state could fund impressive improvements to the 911 system with $178 million, or if they're not going to spend it, they could reduce the fee. Pick one, but don't gather it under false pretenses then use it to pretend the budget is balanced.
“Nobody wants to talk about the dirty little secret,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
Watson explained that the Legislature is not using all of the 911 money for its intended purpose, and it's not using that money for anything else. The money, he said, is simply sitting in the bank unspent to make the state budget appear to be balanced.
"They say, 'All right, how about we just put a fee or a tax on you and we promise you we will use it to pay for that service, something that's popular like a 911,’” Watson said. “Then of course, when they get into the legislative session, they can't balance the budget, so they cook the books."
And this financial trick goes far beyond the 911 money. There are more than 200 accounts meant to pay for things like sexual assault programs, breath-alcohol testing and state parks.
A decade ago, the total amount of this unspent money across the board was about $1.6 billion. Now it is estimated to be about $4.2 billion.