Filling Potholes With Promises
Last week, as it appeared the Legislature didn't have enough gas in its tank to create a road funding plan, Chronicle News Editor Michael King turned his weather eye to me and said, "Used to be that Texas could always pay for two things – roads and prisons. Looks like they can't even do that anymore."
But that was a week ago, and on Monday, Aug. 5, the Lege voted out Senate Joint Resolution 1 – a constitutional amendment that will head to voters for approval in November 2014. It was a hard-wrangled compromise, which explains why it took lawmakers three special sessions, but at least it's done. Slight problem: If approved by the voters, it will provide less than a quarter of the $4 billion annual shortfall that the Texas Department of Transportation projects it needs to just keep up with future urgent road repairs and construction.
It's little secret that Texas roads are a mess, and it's not just congestion. Drive down North Lamar between Airport and Koenig some time, and feel your teeth rattle. Yet Austin's lucky. Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, offered a last minute amendment to SJR 1, prioritizing repaving roads rather than turning them into gravel tracks. But that's crazy talk. Surely Texas, that gleaming corporate city on a hill, would never let real roads degenerate into dirt tracks? Well, break out the wagon and mules, because TxDOT indeed intends to convert 83 miles in the Eagle Ford Shale (which runs through South Texas from Cuero to Laredo) into gravel roads.
The Cost of Doing Nothing
It all comes back to Fund 6, the State Highway Fund. Over the years, this has become the state's unofficial slush fund, and lawmakers have become increasingly frustrated by the amount of cash intended for roads that's diverted away from Fund 6. The causes, such as education, are worthy; but the result is less money for transportation. SJR 1 creates a complicated mechanism whereby lawmakers can divert some gas and oil tax revenues that currently go into the Rainy Day Fund into Fund 6. It's desperately needed: On Aug. 1, the comptroller's Chief Revenue Estimator John Heleman told the House Transportation Funding Select Committee that, even as Texas' population expands and road demand rises, gas tax revenue to pay for repairs is dropping. Heleman summed it up: "Fuel economy has been great for everybody except road construction."
That shortfall – and its long-term impact on big business – is why Gov. Rick Perry demanded that lawmakers come up with more cash. Of course, this being Perry, every solution lawmakers proposed had to be a zero-sum game. His nearly pathological commitment to keeping Texas taxes as flat as possible means a perpetual funding gap. That commitment has created unrealistic expectations about how cheaply Texas can be run, and GOP lawmakers know this. Transportation Funding Committee member Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, broke down what it would take to fill that $4 billion pothole: Either add $744 to the driver's license fee or $200 to vehicle registrations, or raise the gas tax by 35 to 40 cents. Plus, she warned her fellow committee members, if you think gas tax revenues are bad now, wait until the new 55 mpg standards hit in 2025.
Clearly, none of those funding options will fly with hard-line Republican primary voters. Knowing their tendencies, Speaker Joe Straus had the road vote pushed to 2014, so it would not damage the chances for the vote on water infrastructure investment on this year's November ballot. As for the idea that Perry would allow lawmakers to tweak the tax code for businesses to do anything other than add more exemptions, forget it. (Irony of ironies: It's the increase in heavy traffic for the fracking industry that's wrecking the roads out in the Eagle Shale.) But, as committee chair Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, warned his fellow members, "There's a cost to doing nothing."
The Cost of Doing Something
The question is, will Texas voters understand they're already paying that cost in congestion, pollution, and deferred maintenance? A few years ago, when I was a TA at the University of Texas, I asked my students to explain the difference between a regressive and progressive tax. I was amazed by how many got it completely the wrong way around. Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, echoed that experience to the committee, telling them that, whenever education funding is on the ballot, people ask him, "'Doesn't the lottery take care of that? Why, I don't even know why I pay property taxes,' and I have to get over that hump before I even get to what I want to talk about." That's a real fear for lawmakers: If SJR 1 passes next November, it may be harder to fill the rest of that $4 billion pothole next session.
"Then There's This" returns next week.