Texas Senate approves billions in existing revenue for roads

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 3/5/2015

The Texas Senate voted on Wednesday, March 4, to advance a legislative effort to help the state address $5 billion in transportation funding needs.

On a 28-2 vote, senators approved an amended bill that would put about $3 billion in money already available into the State Highway Fund.

The action follows Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement before the start of the regular session that he wants to close the Texas Department of Transportation’s $5 billion annual shortfall during his first year in office. Voters last fall helped get partway to his goal.

In November 2014, 80 percent of voters approved a state constitutional amendment to divert $1.7 billion annually in oil and gas production tax money for roads. The money previously went solely to the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Sen. Robert Nichols, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and one-time Texas Transportation Commissioner, offered a legislative package that stands up to the governor’s requirement by relying on the transfer of motor vehicle sales tax revenue to aid non-toll road projects.

Starting in 2018, the amended bill would cap vehicle sales tax revenue routed to the state’s General Fund at $2.5 billion. The next $2.5 billion would be earmarked for the highway account. The bill, SB5, calls for additional revenue from the 6.25-percent vehicle sales tax to be split between the accounts.

The sales tax revenue now is applied solely to the General Fund to pay for state programs and education.

Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said the revenue would provide TxDOT with a stable, long-term source to get needed road and bridge work done.

“TxDOT needs to know six years, seven years, eight years, nine years out, how much money they are going to have or they cannot even begin the project,” Nichols said during Senate floor discussion. “That is why transportation needs to have dedicated revenues.”

Also approved by the Senate on Wednesday on a 28-2 vote, SJR5 would give voters the final say in November 2016.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said it is important that lawmakers get the legislative package through the statehouse because the state’s economy depends on the needs of transportation being met.

“As I’ve said many times in the past, we’ve relied too heavily on debt and tolls,” Patrick said in a news release. “It’s time we guarantee an additional $5 billion in transportation funding for the next budget cycle.”

He added that ending the state’s reliance on debt and stopping diversions of fuel tax revenue will help redirect additional sources of funding where they belong.

SB5 and SJR5 await assignment to committee in the House.

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