Texas lawmakers eye $4 billion in existing revenue for roads

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Monday, February 09, 2015

Two leading state lawmakers in Texas have rolled out a plan to help the state address $5 billion in transportation funding needs.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, unveiled a plan this past week that would put money already available into the State Highway Fund.

So far this year, state lawmakers from the House and Senate have introduced dozens of bills to help the state address the transportation funding shortfall.

The actions follow 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 this 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.

Texas DOT Executive Director Lt. Gen. Joe Weber referred to passage of the constitutional amendment as a “good first step toward finding sustainable funding to meet Texas’ transportation needs.”

In an effort to take the next step, the governor has called for adding $4 billion more per year for roads without raising taxes, fees or tolls.

Sen. Robert Nichols, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and one-time Texas Transportation Commissioner, has introduced 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.

Specifically, SB5 would reroute between $1.5 billion and $2 billion annually from the state’s General Fund to the highway account. The sales tax revenue accounts for about $4 billion annually to pay for state programs and education.

Nichols said the revenue source would provide TxDOT with a stable, long-term revenue source.

“For it to really work, it’s not so much how much they get next year or the year after, TxDOT needs to know six years out, eight years out, so we can do the long-term major projects that are needed in the state,” Nichols said at a press conference.

If approved by lawmakers, SJR5 would allow voters to get the final say as early as November 2016.

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.

“Not just the time lost in traffic for families commuting, but of moving goods and services,” Patrick stated. “It’s very important, and this is a very sound approach.”

Another part of the plan to help lawmakers reach the governor’s goal includes sending to roads a portion of vehicle registration fees and fuel tax revenue now used for other purposes, such as education.

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