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House to Bridge the Road Funding Gap

Lower chamber meeting at 2pm today for third special session

By Richard Whittaker, 12:55PM, Mon. Aug. 5, 2013

House to Bridge the Road Funding Gap

Day seven of the third special session of the 83rd Texas Legislature, and the House will meet today for another attempt to provide $1 billion a year extra for road construction and maintenance. The big question now: Can the House and Senate reach an agreement on how this affects the Rainy Day Fund?

Last week, the Senate gavelled straight in for the beginning of the third special called session, renumbered the old House Bill 2 and House Joint Resolution 16 as Senate Bill 1 and Senate Joint Resolution 1, and then sent the entire package skidding over to the House.

Why not? After all, the Senate had seemed pretty pleased with the original measure, so why not try again?

However, this afternoon the House will convene to hear HB1 and HJR1, the subtly different measures that came out of last Thursday's Transportation Funding Select Committee.

HB1/HJR1 author Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, had warned Gov. Rick Perry not to reconvene the legislature mere hours after the last failed special, saying that there was no real sign that they had the energy, motivation or ideas to get back through the door and come up with new solutions straight away. He proposed instead waiting until next session, or maybe calling something after the primaries were over, just to give people a little breathing room. But he swallowed his own concerns and helped push through, on a 7-0 committee vote, a new compromise.

It's basically the same proposition that failed last session: HJR 1 will ask voters to approve transferring half of the oil and gas production tax revenue that currently gets diverted into the Rainy Day Fund into the State Highway Fund. However, it's HB1 where things get interesting. Firstly, it requires the Texas Department of Transportation to find $100 million in savings for the 2014-15 biennium. Secondly, it creates a new joint committee which will meet every two years to create a minimum floor for the Rainy Day Fund. This may be the sticking point in the Senate, which left that job to the Legislative Budget Board. It may also cause big trouble in the House, where many Democrats are extremely unhappy about any shift to the current requirement of a two-thirds majority to tap the Rainy Day Fund. Moreover, there are many Republicans that refuse to back any plan that does not set a solid floor to the Rainy Day Fund.

Is this going to be enough to get the bill out of the House? Let's put it this way. As I was leaving the Legislature last week, I walked into Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. Senator, I asked him: Will the House go for the same bill again? "They voted against it before," he said.

And it's not just the ceiling or the creation of a Rainy Day Fund release mechanism. As this is a constitutional amendment, whatever plan is presented will need 100 votes in the House. That means whatever plan comes down needs to appease suburban Republicans and Democrats that have come to fear TxDoT as little more than the state arm of tolling firms, using eminent domain to gobble up and privatize whatever land is required to turn Texas roads into a for-profit entity. Then there's the political calculation that a partial fix now will make it much harder to create a real fix in 2015. After all, the $900 million to $1 billion a year this plan provides will only fill roughly a quarter of what Texas needs to keep its roads at their current levels of disrepair and congestion. It also does nothing for trains, intermodal, ports, anything other than cars and trucks.

And then there's the next big worry. Any cash that comes out of this proposal is linked to the current drilling boom. What happens if that goes away?

So the question remains the same now as it did at the end of the second special: Can Pickett cobble together 100 votes in the House, or is a workable solution now too far out of reach?

And that's a big 'if'. Last week, there were 23 lawmakers absent from the HB16 vote. Pickett thinks that, between the tweaks and a few votes he can pick up from those absentees, then he may have a path to passage. But let's wait and see whether the House is even quorate this afternoon.

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