House defeats transportation bill

The Texas House of Representatives Monday failed to approve a proposed constitutional amendment to funnel more money into transportation. House Joint Resolution 2 was defeated 84 – 40, falling far short of the 100 votes needed to get it on the November 2014 ballot.

The Senate and House had been at odds over how best to come up with that money, without raising taxes or fees. The final compromise would would funnel about $848 million into future road projects by diverting money that currently goes into the Rainy Day Fund into transportation. A major point of contention has been the idea of a trigger point, or minimum balance, for the state’s savings account.

While they failed to pass the main bill, lawmakers did approve a key provision to the final deal. HB 16 gives the Legislative Budget Board the power to set the minimum balance every two years, as opposed to adding a hard and fast dollar amount to the state’s constitution. The Senate also approved that provision. They seem to be at least one vote short, however, of signing off on the final deal.



Senate passes key part of transportation funding plan

After some tense exchanges over a minimum balance, and with barely enough members to form a quorum, the Senate managed to approve part of a plan to direct more money to the state’s transportation needs.

House Bill 16 would allow the Legislative Budget Board to set a minimum balance for the state’s Rainy Day Fund, and it would authorize a joint panel to look into how transportation money is being spent. The bill passed by a vote of 19-4.

Sen. Dan Patrick was one of two lawmakers who spoke against the bill.

“I do not want to see our state in the future not have a reserve fund for economic issues, which it was designed for,” Patrick said.

The Senate had approved a previous version of the bill that included a minimum balance, or floor, in the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which would cut off the redirection of money to the State Highway Fund if the balance fell below $6 billion. That amendment, by Sen. Patrick, was eventually scrapped, a move Sen. Patrick referred to as “caving.”

Sen. Robert Nichols defended the change, saying it was a conservative bill with built-in protections.

“There seems to be a misinterpretation that when we vote on this, that we’re giving power to the LBB to spend out of the Rainy Day Fund,” Nichols said. “If you continue to put money in there, and you don’t take money out, that’s your protection.”

Meanwhile, Senators still have to approve the main part of the plan. House Joint Resolution 2 is the mechanism that would split half of the money bound for the Rainy Day Fund into the State Highway Fund. If passed, it would go before voters in November 2014.

Lawmakers make transportation breakthrough

A standoff over transportation funding appears to be over. Friday, lawmakers reached a deal that will funnel about $845 million dollars into future road projects. The Senate and House had been at odds over how best to come up with that money, without raising taxes or fees.

The final deal is similar to the plan already passed by the Texas Senate. It would divert half the oil and gas production revenue that currently goes into the Rainy Day Fund into transportation.

The major sticking point during negotiations had been over whether the Rainy Day Fund should have a minimum balance, meaning the funding for roads would dry up if the fund dropped below a certain level. In the deal worked out today, the Legislative Budget Board would manage that detail.

Of course, the entire deal is dependent on the voters. They would have to approve a constitutional amendment to make the changes. As part of the deal, lawmakers agreed to push that vote until November, 2014. Voters will already be casting ballots on another constitutional amendment this year to fund water.

The House and Senate are set to reconvene on Monday to approve the deal.

House rallies support for transportation funding amendment

The Texas House has formally approved a plan that would funnel $800 million into Texas roads. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pickett,  would change the way gasoline tax is distributed. Currently, five cents of the 20-cent gas tax goes to pay for public education. Under this plan, all 25 cents would be funneled into transportation projects. The education money would be made up, elsewhere.

Transportation funding was all but passed last special session, but the bill ultimately died after it was placed on the Senate calendar after the abortion bill. As a result of Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster, a final vote never took place.

The legislation is now headed to the Senate, which has already approved its own version of the bill. The Senate resolution, however, includes some key differences. Notably, the bill guarantees that $6 billion will remain in the Rainy Day Fund. House Democrats have vowed to block such a provision.

Voters would still have to approve either plan.

Senate approves non-abortion measures

The Texas Senate took a pair of quick votes Thursday morning and approved transportation and criminal justice measures. Both are part of Gov. Rick Perry’s call during the 83rd Texas Legislature’s second special session, in addition to the highly-emotional issue of abortion regulation.

The transportation measure approved by the full Senate involves a proposed constitutional amendment that would pump $900 million annually into road building from oil and gas taxes. If approved by members of the House, the measure would go to voters in November because it involves tapping into the state’s savings account, often referred to as the Rainy Day Fund.

Many lawmakers point out that this is only a partial fix, since Texas transportation leaders say the state needs about $4 billion more for roads per year just to meet current traffic needs. Meantime, the House is working on a different transportation measure, so it’s uncertain if the Senate’s version will get that chamber’s approval.

The Senate Thursday also approved a bill that updates Texas law following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning sentences of life in prison for 17-year-old capital murder defendants.

Capital Tonight: The Week in Review

Reporter Roundtable

Christy Hoppe from The Dallas Morning News, Scott Braddock of the Quorum Report and Jay Root of The Texas Tribune sat down with Paul Brown to discuss this week’s events in politics, including recently passed education legislation. They also talked about the Texas Faith and Family rally and the need for water legislation this session.

Fact checking Sen. Ted Cruz

Gardner Selby from PolitiFactTexas discussed Sen. Cruz’s statements at CPAC this week.


Texas roads get failing grade

If you’ve ever been stuck on Interstate-35 and thought, “This could not possibly be any worse,” you’re not far from the truth, at least according to one group.

The Texas section of the American Society of Civil Engineers has released a new report card, interpreting all aspects of the state’s infrastructure through a traditional letter grade scale.

Texas roads and highways get a D.

The report card took seven factors into account, including capacity to meet current and future demands, funding, condition and protection against possible threats.

Here’s a breakdown of the results:

Roads & Highways: D

While the report credits transportation officials with looking for alternate ways to fund new projects (we assume that includes toll roads), it says “funding for traditional projects has declined,” along with overall maintenance. Because of that, the report says Texas now ranks 42nd in highway spending per capita, compared to other states. In 2008, it ranked number 17.

Bridges: B –

The good news is that, although Texas has more bridges than any other state by far, our grade is better than the national one, which is a C. The bad news is that the number of “structurally deficient” bridges is expected to rise in the next 10 years. The ASCE report credits TxDOT with eliminating the worst offenders, but says more funding is needed to maintain the department’s goal.

Transit: C +

The state’s grade has improved since 2008, thanks to new buses, carpooling efforts and passenger rail. It also ranks higher than the national grade. Still, the ASCE report says Texas is “heavily dependent” on federal money when it comes to light rail transit.

 So what’s being done to fix these problems?

Both the Governor and Lieutenant Governor have mentioned transportation as an issue to work on this legislative session, and budget proposals from both the House and Senate include increases for transportation funding. One new solution floating around was brought up by the Texas Association of Business last year. They’re backing a plan to increase the vehicle registration fee by $50. By their estimate, it would generate “as much as $14 to $16 billion” in bond money for transportation projects.