House Speaker Joe Straus embraces the end-the-diversions approach to transportation funding.
Texas’ booming economy and massive transportation needs are inching the state toward simplifying highway spending, officials say.
The latest move to end so-called diversions from the State Highway Fund came Wednesday, when Speaker Joe Straus said the next Texas budget proposed by the House will dedicate all the money from the fund to transportation.
“This approach will make the state budget even more straightforward, just as taxpayers expect,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said in a news release. “It will also provide needed transportation revenue – without a tax increase.”
The highway fund, amassed from state gasoline tax revenues and fees for services like driver’s license renewals and vehicle registrations, goes mostly to the Texas Department of Transportation. Some of the money, however, goes to law enforcement or other uses.
Shifting all the money to transportation would give TxDOT an additional $1.3 billion, Straus’ office said. Other money would be found for the budgets affected, Straus said, although he did not specify a source.
EoW is also on this. Let’s be clear about two things. One is that this doesn’t actually solve the problem of insufficient funding for transportation in Texas. It helps, sure, but it’s not enough. There’s still a gap, which includes paying off a ton of bond debt, and closing that gap involves the same choices that the Lege has studiously avoided making so far. And two, the impression I have always gotten is that the way that “other money would be found” would be by cutting it from other parts of the budget. You don’t think they’d increase spending by $1.3 billion and not offset it somewhere else, do you? We’re likely to have a big enough surplus this biennium to reduce the appetite for that kind of mindless cutting, but there’s also going to be a lot of pressure for mindless tax cutting, and you can imagine what will be more popular. So if this isn’t a stealth budget cut, and if it isn’t a declaration of victory for transportation spending, then it’s OK. If not, we’re being sold a bill of goods.
Meanwhile, the federal government has its own funding problems for transportation.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday tried to turn up the election-year heat on Republicans by demanding fast-track congressional action to finance multi-year bridge and highway projects that are jeopardized by the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund.
The president made his partisan pitch on the banks of the Hudson River in Tarrytown, N.Y., with the deteriorating 58-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge as a backdrop to underscore the price of election-year inaction by Congress.
The 4.9-mile bridge north of New York City is being replaced in a $3.9 billion federal-state project.
Obama said unnamed Republican lawmakers are voting against transportation spending yet willing to take credit at the projects’ ribbon-cutting ceremonies. “They are more interested in saying ‘no’ because they are worried that maybe they’d have to be at a bill signing with me,” Obama said.
Without congressional action to beef up the hard-pressed Highway Trust Fund, money for transportation projects will “run out” by the end of summer, Obama warned. “The cupboard will be bare.”
That could imperil 700,000 jobs, potentially risking continuation of 112,000 active road and bridge projects as well as 5,600 transit projects, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has warned.
Texas has a great deal at stake, receiving about $3.2 billion a year from the federal government for transportation projects. That amounts to roughly 35 percent of the state’s annual spending on projects.
Sen. John Cornyn said the bipartisan Senate measure being marked up on Capitol Hill on Thursday still faces scrutiny and tinkering by other committees with jurisdiction, including the Senate Finance Committee. Cornyn, R-Texas, is a member of the 26-member panel that will come up with the funding mechanism for the measure, whether a gasoline tax hike, corporate tax “reform” or permission for states to impose tolls.
“As a first step, it is my hope that the bill will be improved as it moves through the committee process,” said Cornyn, the second in command in the Senate GOP leadership. “Congress must be willing to do the hard work of reforming our distorted federal aid system and addressing the solvency of the Trust Fund on a long-term basis.”
The two situations aren’t exactly the same, as there isn’t a quick and easy partial fix available to Congress. But the same comprehensive fix exists for each. Unfortunately, so does the stubborn resistance to it. I don’t foresee that resistance being overcome any time soon.