Highway funding the final obstacle for 83rd Texas Legislature

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on July 17, 2013 at 7:13 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 17 at 7:15 PM

AUSTIN -- With the debate over abortion in the rear-view mirror, lawmakers have one final piece of business to resolve before returning home.
 
According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), Texas highways are in need of an additional $4 billion a year just to keep up with current wear and tear. With two weeks left in the second called session of the 83rd Texas Legislature, lawmakers hope to find a stop-gap funding solution to which both chambers can agree.
 
State Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) is the author of House Joint Resolution (HJR) 2, a constitutional amendment aimed to create a reliable funding stream for transportation infrastructure while weaning the state off of a dwindling supply of borrowed money. 
 
"If we don't do something, it will be harder, more difficult to dig us out of the hole in another two years," Pickett told KVUE Wednesday.
 
Every time Texans fill up at the pump, they pay a gasoline tax. About a quarter of that tax under current law goes to fund schools via the Available School Fund (ASF), with the rest dedicated to fund highway projects. If passed by both chambers and approved by voters on the November ballot, HJR 2 would dedicate all of that money to funding roads.
 
"We would like to end diverting any of the gas tax to other than transportation and roads, and at the same time secure the financing for public education," explained Pickett.
 
That financing would come from taxes paid by the oil and gas industry currently used to fill the state's savings account, officially designated the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF) and commonly referred to as the 'rainy day fund.' A portion of that money would instead be diverted to schools, and another portion to roads. 
 
"The net effect is public education is held whole," said Pickett. "The public, as far as transparency, we can tell them all of the tax they pay at the gas pump goes to transportation, and transportation winds up with a net of $800 million more a year and grows from there out."
 
The House plan replaces a similar plan passed by the Senate that includes a provision prohibiting the rainy day fund from dropping below a certain amount. The floor would be set at one-third of the rainy day fund's cap, which is calculated each biennium based on general revenue. 
 
"The members feel, and I do too, that we want to make sure that there's a comfortable amount of money in the rainy day fund," state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), author of SJR 1, told KVUE in an interview earlier this month. "We know with inflation and growth of the state, our general revenues will continue to increase. So having a floor that's a fraction of that rolling number makes sense to me."    
 
Pickett argues the idea of requiring the rainy day fund to maintain a minimum balance is unnecessary, and warns such a provision would be a difficult sell in the lower chamber. The House narrowly decided to give tentative approval to HJR 2 on Tuesday, voting 92 to 36 with 26 members absent. The measure will need 100 votes to clear the House chamber on Thursday.
 
Even if the House were to approve the measure, whether the Senate would adopt it is up in the air. The process is expected to continue through the next week, but if the House and Senate are unable to swiftly reconcile any differences, the process could take longer.

 

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