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House passes different transportation bill than the Senate passed

Our endless summer of special sessions isn’t over yet.

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The Texas House on Thursday gave final passage to a measure to boost funding for transportation projects, though few members expect it to survive the Senate without significant changes.

After more than an hour of debate, the House voted 108-25 for House Joint Resolution 2, clearing the 100-vote threshold required of proposed constitutional amendments. If the Senate changes the measure as expected, a conference committee would need to be called for House and Senate members to work out the differences. The Senate is scheduled to convene again Friday.

HJR 2 would ask voters to approve amending the constitution in order to raise about $800 million for the state’s highway fund through a complicated shifting of different revenue streams including oil and gas production taxes and the motor vehicle gas tax. The Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs $4 billion in extra funding each year to maintain current congestion levels across the state.

The measure’s author, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, stressed that it would not raise any taxes or fees. It also would reduce the state’s reliance on tolling and debt for future transportation projects, he said.

“It gets us another step back to pay-as-you-go,” Pickett told House members before the vote.

There’s nothing wrong with using debt as your primary means of funding capitol projects – since people are often fond of the household budget analogy, however ridiculous it often is, let me ask you how often you pay for your home renovation projects out of cash flow – and “pay as you go” is overrated and often used as a lame excuse for not spending on needed infrastructure. All that said, Texas has relied on debt for transportation funding a lot in recent years – we even issued road bonds a couple sessions ago – thanks in large part to our extreme reluctance to increase our main revenue stream, the gas tax. Toll roads are proliferating like mushrooms after a week of rain in Houston for the same reason. Neither the House solution nor the Senate solution is optimal, but they both at least acknowledge the underlying problem.

The Highwayman succinctly explains the difference between the House and Senate bills.

The House earlier this week approved a plan by Rep. Joe Pickett, D- El Paso, to spend all the money collected from motor vehicle fuel taxes in the state on transportation, erasing a nickel-per-gallon diversion that went to education.

Pickett replaces the money by guaranteeing an equal amount for education from the state’s rainy day fund.

[…]

Senators, led by Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, also would raise about $1 billion for highway maintenance and expansion via their funding plan. Rather than end the education diversion, Nichols proposed keeping gas taxes as they are, but directing half of the oil production tax revenues going to the rainy day fund to transportation.

The Senate plan is simpler, while the House plan has the virtue of being sellable to voters by saying it ensures that all gas tax money would be used for transportation, no more diversions. I think either one of them can pass, and both of them will face opposition from the usual squadron of nihilists.

Trail Blazers adds some more detail about the Rainy Day Fund machinations.

The rainy day fund has about $8 billion. It can’t exceed a cap, which will be more than $14 billion in the next two-year budget cycle. The Senate wants the additional funding of roads to stop if it would decrease the fund’s balance below one-third of the cap, or close to $5 billion.

House leaders, though, say there’s no reason to wall off the state’s savings that way. They note it already takes a two-thirds vote by each house to spend rainy-day dollars.

“We are the floor,” Pickett said.

Under his amendment, the state would shovel $820 million more to highways in fiscal 2015, and $860 million annually by 2018. The Senate’s version would boost road funding by slightly more — $879 million in 2015 and $933 million the following year.

The Texas Department of Transportation currently spends about $10 billion a year.

The differences between the two bills is quite small, and neither comes close to bridging the $4 billion per year gap that TxDOT claims it has; that figure is overblown, but not by enough to make the gap go away under either of these plans. At this point, either the Senate agrees to the House plan, a conference committee hammers out a compromise that both chambers can then pass, or else:

Some House GOP leaders said Gov. Rick Perry has hinted he might call a third special session if lawmakers can’t send him a constitutional amendment to boost road funding.

Perry spokesman Josh Perry declined to comment, calling the question hypothetical.

We really don’t want to go there, do we?

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