Third special session nearer as House spikes highway funding deal


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on July 29, 2013 at 6:32 PM

Updated Monday, Jul 29 at 6:40 PM

AUSTIN -- The second special session of the 83rd Texas Legislature has just one day left, and after rejecting a compromise Monday on transportation funding legislation, a third could be swiftly on the way. 
After beginning the current special session focused on the passage of controversial new abortion laws, only one job remained: To find a way to help fund the state's roads and highways without raising taxes or fees or increasing public debt. The plan includes diverting a portion of revenue from oil and gas taxes from the rainy day fund to instead pay for infrastructure. 
"My viewpoint is we've got a big, big, big step we can take," said state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), author of HJR 2 and a member of the conference committe which met through the weekend to reach a compromise between the two chambers. "We at least have an agreement on the source of the revenue to use at this point." 
The main disagreement has been over the idea of keeping a minimum balance in the state's savings account. Over the weekend, members of the House and Senate agreed to a compromise that would allow the Legislative Budget Board to establish a floor every two years, but keep the ultimate authority on spending with the legislature. 
"Some of them think there's a floor so they don't like it. There's some who think there isn't a floor, so they don't like it," said Pickett. "My job is to try to convince both sides that it doesn't matter, that we the legislature controls that number. We're the only ones that can move it up. We're the only ones that can move it down. We're the only ones who can take money out of that fund. No one else."
"There are people out there who want to see the entire membership weigh in on the floor," state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) explained Monday. "But I think the LBB floor panel would be something that gives us the kind of protections that we need to make sure that we ensure the safety of the rainy day fund." 
During floor debate Monday, both Democrats and Republicans raised serious concerns over the floor issue. State Rep. Dawnna Dukes questioned Pickett at length over how much control the LBB would have over spending money out of the fund. The board is headed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Texas) and House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), and is compromised of with five additional Republican lawmakers and three Democrats.
The House voted 84-40 to pass HJR 2 Monday afternoon, falling 16 votes shy of the 100 votes needed to carry the two-thirds margin required for the constitutional amendment to pass. Several members were absent, and the technically the House could reconsider the measure or return it to the conference committee to try again. The House recessed until 2:00 p.m. Tuesday without assigning directions to conferees.
The measure, which would go before voters on the November 2014 ballot, would have funded roughly $1 billion of the extra $4 billion a year needed to keep up with current maintenance and construction. Perry has threatened to call another 30-day special session at a cost of more than a million dollars if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement, but Pickett and other lawmakers have warned calling lawmakers back immediately may be counterproductive. 
"In my opinion it would not be productive to come back in a third special session tomorrow, or the next day or the next week," said Pickett, who suggests instead allowing members to return after next spring's primary elections. 
Straus released the following statement Monday:
"I would like to thank the Members who worked so diligently in an effort to address some of our transportation needs during these two special sessions. As today’s vote shows, Members have become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of diverting and indefinitely dedicating funds away from the Rainy Day Fund to roads.  These funds were never intended to be a stable, long-term way to address our transportation needs."

"Diverting a capped amount of money from the Rainy Day fund to repair roads is much like using a Band-Aid to cover a pothole; in the end, you still have a pothole and you’ve spent a lot of money without solving the fundamental problem.  Legislators know that Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that. Until members are free to consider real options - beyond simply shuffling taxes from one purpose to another - we will not find a responsible solution to this issue."

"One of the hallmarks of this year’s regular legislative session was the way legislators came together to develop long-term, responsible policies to meet Texas’ growing needs. Developing a similar long-term, responsible plan to truly address Texas’ growing transportation needs is going to take much more time and an approach that focuses on the best solution for the people of Texas."

UPDATE: Gov. Perry released the following statement:

“It is disappointing that some members of the House today needlessly delayed our state’s ability to deal with the added strain our increasing population and surging economy are placing on our roads and highways. Should the Legislature adjourn without addressing our growing transportation needs, they’ll be abdicating one of the most essential roles of state government, potentially sapping our economic momentum. This was an opportunity to utilize hundreds of millions of dollars in existing revenue to move forward on numerous projects across our state and begin dealing with the effects of our economic growth, and just as importantly, provide much-needed relief to working Texans everywhere who spend hours in traffic every day. Legislators have been in Austin for nearly seven months now, and to go home without dealing with one of the most pressing issues facing all Texans is simply unacceptable. I join Texans across the state who appreciate the 84 members of the House who voted today to keep Texas moving.”