Texas governor-elect, lawmakers unveil plans to aid roads

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott announced this week that he wants to close the Texas Department of Transportation’s $5 billion annual shortfall during his first year in office. Voters this fall helped him get partway to his goal.

Abbott said during a press conference on Monday, Dec. 8, he is calling for adding $4 billion more per year for roads without raising taxes, fees or tolls.

Texas state lawmakers appear to be on board with aiding transportation projects. Since they were given the opportunity to file bills for consideration during the upcoming regular session, more than two dozen bills have been filed that would help get road and bridge work done.

Voters also want to see improvements made on the more than 191,000 lane miles throughout the state.

On Election Day, voters approved a state constitutional amendment to divert $1.7 billion annually in severance tax money for roads. The money now goes to the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Texas DOT Executive Director Lt. Gen. Joe Weber, USMC, Retired, recently said passage of the constitutional amendment is a “good first step toward finding sustainable funding to meet Texas’ transportation needs.”

Among the measures filed in the lead-up to the opening of the 2015 regular session are two pieces of legislation that are intended to help the state address $5 billion in transportation funding needs without increasing taxes or fees.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed two measures billed as providing $620 million annually in additional highway funding by ending a number of long-standing budgetary diversions that draw fuel tax dollars away from the State Highway.

He said SB184 and SJR15 “represent a commonsense approach that’s capable of adding millions of dollars in new highway funding without raising taxes, issuing new debt or building toll roads.”

Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, wants to overhaul how the state raises road revenue. His bill, HB151, would create a vehicle-miles traveled tax to replace fuel tax collection. All revenue raised would be required to be used solely for road maintenance.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, has filed a bill that would increase fuel tax rates to boost road revenue.

The state’s fuel tax rate for gas and diesel is 20 cents per gallon. It has remained unchanged since 1990.

Her bill, HB395, would raise the rate by 10 cents to 30 cents per gallon.

McClendon said that state lawmakers have been looking at alternatives to the fuel tax for years with no success. She also pointed out that the structure to collect additional revenue on fuel purchases is already in place and wouldn’t require additional expenses to administer toll taxes or VMT taxes.

“When you consider all the options, this is actually a very cheap alternative,” McClendon said in previous remarks.

Multiple measures would rely on the transfer of motor vehicles sales tax revenue to aid non-toll roads. Abbott also wants to see about $2 billion annually rerouted to the State Highway Fund.

Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, has offered a bill that would eliminate diversions from the highway fund to the Department of Public Safety. SB139 is intended to ensure available funds are applied solely for road work.

Currently, a portion of the highway fund pays for the highway patrol.

Perry also filed a proposed amendment to the state constitution, SJR12, to end the diversions.

State lawmakers can begin discussions on transportation funding options once the Legislature convenes on Jan. 13, 2015.

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