Texas lawmakers advance proposals to raise billions for roads

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A push in the Texas Legislature to come up with more money for roads and bridges relies on revenue already available to the state.

The House voted unanimously to advance a bill to provide $3 billion more each year for roads. It has been sent to the Senate for further consideration.

Sponsored by House Transportation Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the bill would route a portion of the more than $27 billion raised annually in state sales tax revenue to the Texas Department of Transportation. In addition to the extra $3 billion set aside for roads, a provision is included to deposit 2 percent of the remaining sales tax revenue each year for the agency.

The Senate Transportation Committee is scheduled to consider the bill, HB13, during a public hearing on Wednesday, May 13.

Senators already approved a similar effort to help the state address $5 billion in transportation funding needs.

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

The actions follow Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement before the start of the regular session that he wants to close the Texas DOT’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.

The Senate version, SB5, stands up to the governor’s requirement by relying on the transfer of motor vehicle sales tax revenue to aid non-toll road projects.

Sponsored by Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, the 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 vehicle sales tax revenue now is applied solely to the General Fund to pay for state programs and education.

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

House and Senate lawmakers have already signed off on a separate effort that would give voters the final say on road revenue. State lawmakers, however, have been unable to agree on one version of the legislation.

The House version would tap the vehicle sales tax to come up with about $2.5 billion more each year for roads. The Senate version relies on the state’s general sales tax for at least $3 billion more annually for roads.

In an effort to settle their differences, SJR5 has been sent to a conference committee made up of select members from both chambers to reach agreement.

Another House-approved bill, HB20, would require the state DOT to provide information to the public about transportation funding decisions.

Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said the bill is intended to address concerns from the public about how existing funding sources are being used.

“I filed House Bill 20 to provide a framework to ensure transportation dollars are administered in an objective, transparent manner with accountability for every dollar spent,” Simmons said during House floor discussion.

An advisory committee made up of state lawmakers would also be set up to oversee projects.

The bill is scheduled for consideration on Wednesday in the Senate Transportation Committee.

The Senate also approved a legislative package 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. A proposed amendment to the state constitution, SJR12, would end the diversions for the highway patrol.

SB139 and SJR12 are in the House Transportation Committee.

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

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