The Austin Chronicle

Carona Push-Starts Stalled Bill

By Richard Whittaker, April 15, 2009, 10:18am, Newsdesk

Travis County is edging closer to having the power to raise money for roads and rail after the Senate passed Senate Bill 855 on Tuesday.

After last week's contentious debate, the third vote could have been the excuse for a row, but instead it passed quickly. Bill author and Senate Transportation Committee Chair John Carona, R-Dallas, explained the lack of a fight: Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, had claimed the bill was problematical on points of order, but also on constitutional grounds. Since it only covers 19 counties and several senators spent hours bolting on floor amendments stacked with exemptions, Ogden claimed it had become a special or local bill, and was therefore unconstitutional. Carona argued it's simply a bracketed bill, and the lege passes them all the time.

After consultation with the parliamentarian and legal counsel last Thursday, they concluded that there's no overwhelming constitutional or legal precedent, and so they'd just have a vote.

Result? SB 855 passed its third vote 21-9 (Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, voted for the bill at second vote and was absent-excused.) But passage leaves it under exactly the same legal cloud Carona said he wanted to avoid.

It's a mixed result for Carona. He's always been a proponent of raising the gas tax (as are a solid mixture of Democrats and Republicans) and cutting back on the authority of TxDoT, which this bill does, kinda, sorta. He's also a proponent of making these reforms statewide, and since this started out a Dallas-only bill and managed to expand to cover more big urban counties, that's a start. However, Ogden kept Williamson County out, which could create some complexities with CAMPO planning, and Houston sat this one out completely.

The whole bill has been about one thing: Tools in the tool box. Texas transportation is massively underfunded (as Senate Transportation Vice-Chair Kirk Watson, D-Austin, noted before the vote, after 2012 there will be no money for new projects) so the bill is intended to give individual counties the right to hold elections to increase the gas tax. Even though just about everyone accepts that the current 20 cent state rate simply doesn't provide enough money, getting a state-wide raise passed would be just about impossible. Instead, they're having to settle for a small selection of options, like limited gas tax raises, emission taxes and registration fees, that county commissioners can put on the ballot.

The expectation is that the House may be able to put back some tools in the tool box that got taken out in the Senate process. Even then, some of them will probably get thrown back out in conference committee. It could still be a complicated equation, and not just because of knee-jerk anti-tax conservatives: Democrat Sens. Leticia Van de Putte and Carlos Uresti were concerned that any tax hikes will hit the poorest of their Bexar county residents.

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