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House backs TxDOT funding plan, but hurdles remain

By by Aman Batheja / Texas Tribune
Published On: Jul 16 2013 05:29:39 PM CDT

A new transportation funding plan, the only unresolved issue on the agenda of the current special session, inched forward Monday as the House tentatively approved a measure while setting up a potential battle on the issue with the Senate.

After four hours of debate, House members voted 92-36 to tentatively approve House Joint Resolution 2 by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. Because the measure would ask voters to amend the Texas Constitution, it will need 100 votes in support on a final vote expected to be held Thursday. Given the number of members who were absent Monday, supporters of the bill said that they should be able to clear that hurdle.

"Having 92 positive votes with 26 members absent means it's alive," Pickett said.

HJR 2 would ask Texas voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would raise about $800 million for the state's highway fund. 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 extra funding would come via a complicated shifting of three different revenue sources. Currently, a quarter of the gas tax - 5 cents paid by Texans on every gallon of gas - goes to public education. Lawmakers have long criticized the diversion and cited it as a reason they oppose efforts to raise more revenue for TxDOT.

Under HJR 2, the entire gas tax would go toward transportation. To make up for the loss to school funding, some of the oil and gas production taxes currently earmarked for the state's Rainy Day Fund would go to the state's Available School Fund.

"You would be able to go home to your constituents and say, 'If you pass this in November, all of the tax you pay at the gas pump will go toward transportation," Pickett told colleagues.

The measure is more complicated than Senate Joint Resolution 1, the version of the proposal that the Senate has already passed. It directs some of the revenue that would normally end up in the Rainy Day Fund to the state highway fund.

Both measures include provisions barring any of the new transportation revenue from funding toll roads.

The debate over both plans has hinged on language pushed by some Republicans to create a "floor" in the Rainy Day Fund that would prevent oil and gas production taxes being diverted elsewhere if the fund's balance falls below a certain level. The Senate version sets the floor at one-third of the Rainy Day Fund's legislative cap, a figure that varies over time.

Democrats and many Republicans have argued that such a provision would make it nearly impossible to draw enough legislative support to draw down the Rainy Day Fund below that level, regardless of the state's need.

Pickett did not include a floor provision in his proposal. Efforts by Republican lawmakers to add one to the measure failed Monday.

Several other amendments also failed or were withdrawn.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, drew heated questioning from some lawmakers before he ultimately withdrew a proposal that would have linked voter approval of a constitutional amendment on transportation funding with one funding water infrastructure projects that passed during this year's regular legislative session. Pitts wanted to block the roads amendment from being implemented if it drew sufficient voter support but the water amendment did not.

"I don't want a group to say, 'Vote for transportation and don't vote for water,'" Pitts said. "I think there's a group that may want to do that."

Pitts quipped that his amendment would send the message, "You've got to drink before you drive."

Several lawmakers accused Pitts of not trusting Texas voters to make up their own minds.

"It seems like we're trying to game the system," said state Rep. James White, R-Hillister.

If HJR 2 clears the 100-vote hurdle on Thursday, the measure will probably be the subject of a hearing in the Senate, ensuring that the special session will stretch on until next week. Senators would have to ultimately decide whether to accept the House proposal or amend it, potentially further drawing out the session's conclusion.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/07/15/house-approves-txdot-funding-plan-hurdles-remain/.

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