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Lege may have found a way on transportation funding

As of Thursday, Special Session 3: Beyond Thunderdome was looming.

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Both chambers of the Legislature were filled with activity Thursday afternoon but they ended up essentially where they had started: waiting on House and Senate negotiators to come up with a transportation funding plan most lawmakers could agree on.

There was little sign Thursday that the two chambers were any closer to finding common ground, even though Gov. Rick Perry has vowed to call them back for a third special session if they can’t get around the current impasse.

A majority of members in both chambers favor taking advantage of a spike in tax revenue from the ongoing oil drilling boom to boost funding for the Texas Department of Transportation. They remain divided on how exactly to use that tax revenue, currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund, and whether fears that that fund’s future balance may drop below a certain level need to be addressed.

“As you may have seen in the news, like any negotiation, this one has had its ups and downs,” House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, told the chamber Thursday afternoon.

The House adjourned until Monday, suggesting negotiations could stretch into the weekend. Earlier in the day, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he hoped Senators could be done by Friday.

But late in the day Friday, it appeared that the stalemate had been broken.

House and Senate members have reached agreement on transportation funding legislation, senators said Friday, hammering out details of a proposed constitutional amendment that, if voters approve, would mean an additional $850 million a year for highway spending.

However, the House sponsor of the legislation, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, stopped just short of declaring the deal signed and delivered.

“We’re pretty close,” Pickett said as a conference committee on the legislation prepared to meet again late Friday. “We have a little heartburn that we haven’t gotten over. But I don’t think it will fall apart.”

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The final proposal, senators said, mostly hews to the version approved by senators this week. It would direct to the state highway fund half of the oil and gas severance tax revenue that otherwise would have gone to the rainy day fund. The House version instead would have ended a constitutional dedication to public education of a quarter of gasoline tax revenue.

In addition, again mirroring the Senate version, it would include a rainy day fund “floor.” If the fund fell below that level, then TxDOT would get less or perhaps none of the oil and gas severance tax revenue in any given year.

But in a concession to the House, that floor would be set in statute, not the state Constitution. And that number could change over time as determined by the state Legislative Budget Board. That initial floor has not been determined, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said.

There is still one possible roadblock.

A key sticking point between both chambers was whether the amendment needed language that would set a so-called floor on the Rainy Day Fund. The original Senate plan would have placed a provision in the state Constitution that would block the diversion whenever the fund’s balance falls below $6 billion. House Democrats had opposed including that provision in the Constitution.

The proposal made by leaders in the House on Friday would give the 10-person Legislative Budget Board the option of setting a floor for the Rainy Day Fund, with the authority placed in state law rather than in the Constitution. Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said details on that part of the deal were still being worked out.

The LBB is chaired by the lieutenant governor, with the House speaker serving as vice chair. Four senators and four House members fill out the rest of the board.

House Democrats have been wary of placing any kind of provisions that could be seen as placing limits on the Rainy Day Fund. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said House Democrats held a caucus meeting on Thursday and appeared largely united in opposition to a deal that includes the Republican-controlled LBB controlling the implementation of a Rainy Day Fund floor.

Two-thirds of both chambers must vote for HJR 2 for the measure to be sent to voters. House Democrats could block it from passing if most of them are united against it.

“I guess we’ll have to extend our leases for another month,” Martinez Fischer said, referring to the prospects of a third special session.

Hard to know how serious a threat that is, but for sure it ain’t over till it’s over. Still, I thought the difference was fundamental enough that there wasn’t a middle ground to be reached, and yet there was. One quirk of this compromise is that the vote on it would be deferred until November of 2014, so as not to cause confusion with the water infrastructure fund vote. I presume there’s a political calculation in that, but it’s mighty subtle if you ask me. Be that as it may, it’s nice to see some progress being made, but let’s not mistake this for a whole solution. While this is going on, TxDOT is making plans to convert some asphalt roads to gravel because we are unwilling and/or unable to come up with the means to properly maintain them. Boy, nothing says “world class infrastructure” like gravel roads, am I right? Why does Rick Perry even need to try to entice businesses to move here when we can promise them this level of service? Maybe the Lege can address that in 2015.

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2 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    Keep in mind that even if there were unlimited funds to maintain those asphalted roads, they would still be falling apart all the time, and require reasphalting monthly. until such time as the boom dies down, and heavy truck traffic is reduced, using gravel roads makes sense. It’s not like the asphalt roads are engineered with multiple layers, reinforcement, etc. They are typically put down on a bed of crushed gravel and sand, and aren’t meant for continuous heavy truck usage.

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