Texas transportation money: third time is the charm?

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 7/2/2013

Hopeful that the third time is the charm, Texas lawmakers convened a second special session on Monday, July 1, to tackle issues that include funding for transportation work throughout the state.

The clock ran out on the first special session a week ago before the Senate could vote to send to the governor a measure to use the state’s Rainy Day Fund to benefit roads and bridges. It was one of multiple efforts that died because debate on an abortion bill wasn’t resolved before the extra session ended.

Gov. Rick Perry again included transportation funding to the special session call. On the first day of the new session, an identical effort to raise nearly $1 billion for transportation was introduced.

The transportation funding measure seeks to amend the Texas constitution to tap the state’s oil and gas severance tax to boost revenue. Senate Joint Resolution 1 would divert to roads and bridges about $900 million in severance tax money that is earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund.

Supporters say that something needs to be done to address a transportation funding crunch that has little chance of improving on its own. Specifically, officials at the Texas Department of Transportation say that $4 billion more per year is needed to maintain existing roads.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he was “disappointed” that lawmakers weren’t able to resolve the funding issue during the first special session.

“This measure would have been a step in the right direction toward finding a long-term transportation funding solution, and had strong, bipartisan support in both chambers,” Nichols said in prepared remarks.

A provision in the bill specifies that the Rainy Day Fund couldn’t be drained to an amount below $5 billion. In addition, revenue routed to roads couldn’t be applied to toll projects.

The Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday, July 2, to advance SJR1 to the full Senate. It is expected to come up for consideration on the floor as soon as Monday, July 8.

If lawmakers approve the measure, it would be included on the fall ballot for voters to make the final decision on the redirection of funds.

Another issue on the agenda would bring some of the state’s truck rules in line with federal rules and raise money for transportation work.

The bill – HB14 – would comply with federal rules on learning permits for commercial driver’s licenses and outlaw texting and the use of hand-held cellphones by truckers while driving.

Failure to make the changes could result in Texas losing out on 4 percent of federal highway funds the first year. Withholdings double each year thereafter until compliance is achieved.

States must adopt the CDL testing standards by July 8, 2014. The deadline to adopt the texting ban is Oct. 27, 2013, and the cellphone driving rule must be updated by Jan. 3, 2015.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Texas, click here.

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