Transport on a Road to Nowhere

House and Senate in conference committee as clock ticks down

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso: If HJR 2 fails, don't envy him his August. Wait, what, we all have to come back?
Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso: If HJR 2 fails, don't envy him his August. Wait, what, we all have to come back?

Texas lawmakers may be running out of gas in their efforts to get a deal struck on House Joint Resolution 2, the vehicle for two contentious plans to put a little extra cash into transportation funding, before the special session ends on July 30. If they can't do it, then Gov. Rick Perry is threatening a third special session.

Transportation – after sentencing 17 year olds and abortion – was the third issue on Perry's call for the current second special. Those other issues were primarily driven by partisan divisions. However, this time it's the House and Senate at each other's throats. Each has rival plans to produce just south of $1 billion a year in road construction and maintenance cash, and neither seems fond of the other's proposal. The problem now is that they only have five days to get something signed, sealed and delivered to the governor for signing. From there, any measure will go to voters for approval on the November ballot.

Today, resolution author and House Transportation Committee Vice-Chair Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, laid out the simple math. The Texas Department of Transportation is underfunded. Now, the popular misconception is that it will hit a financial wall in two years time but that's not quite accurate. TxDoT has a ten year plan for construction and repair projects. If they can't find a mechanism to provide cash extra cash, then in 2015 they will no longer be able to add new projects to the end of that list. If you think Texas has severe deferred maintenance issues now, then wait until 2025.

But the House and Senate can't agree on how to solve that problem. The upper chamber has gone with a plan to divert some of the oil and gas severance taxes that go into the Rainy Day Fund to go into the State Highway Fund. The lower chamber wants to end the habit of diverting a quarter of the gas tax into the Available School Fund, send that all to transportation, and use some of that same cash currently allocated for the Rainy Day Fund to backfill the loss to schools. As of today, neither was happy with the other's plan, and so the hunt is on for something that looks like a compromise.

Before the afternoon began, I ran into Pickett at the west doors of the Capitol. We likely to have a deal, I asked. He shrugged. "I hope so."

A couple of hours later, the situation was not looking much brighter. While reps twiddled their thumbs, waiting for the Senate to rush through its decision, the House Democratic Caucus met in the speaker's press room, clearly to plan their next step. One Democratic rep gave a pretty emphatic thumbs down on the process.

That was before the next bad news appeared. The Senate Finance Committee had met in the afternoon to hear House Bill 16, the enabling legislation for HJR 2. They had taken the delicate balancing act crafted by Pickett et al, and turned it into nothing more than a study on the Rainy Day Fund. This was after they'd already gutted the House version of HJR2 and put their scheme in its place. Now both measures head into the murky depths of the conference committee process.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has yet again signaled that he wants the legislation on its way to Gov. Rick Perry by the beginning of the week, and in a fit of optimism has called the Senate back at 4pm Friday.

To coin a phrase, good luck with that.

Pickett told the House that, even before the conferees were selected, there had been a working group operating as a de facto conference, trying to hammer out the differences. Dewhurst told his side of the divide that there had been progress, but there are still a couple of issues that need to be finessed.

Let's list them. First off, every lawmaker has been railing for years about the state's use of tax diversions (robbing Peter to pay Paul.) The House was actually doing something about that, and the Senate is pushing for a new variation on the status quo. Add on to that the extreme discomfort with the disdainful way the Senate has simply thrown the House version out. Then there are conservatives who a probably unhappy about the blase way the Senate cut out TxDoT oversight. Those were essential clauses to keep on board suburban GOPers angered by toll roads and eminent domain. Over on the Senate side, Dewhurst and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, have set a $6 billion floor to the Rainy Day Fund, and that's something House Democrats will simply not swallow.

And then there's the biggest shadow of all. Whichever plan is adopted, it will only produce barely a fifth of the consensus estimates of what TxDoT needs to keep rolling. Two of the House's most seasoned lawmakers – Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland had a little back and forth with Pickett – in reality, less a real debate and more a way to lay out the real issues. Keffer clarified that this is only the first, if most substantial, part of a longer, multi-phase process to filling in that funding pothole. He made opaque references to external pressures on the process (cough Perry cough) but it was Thompson who made it explicit: No point rushing through a lousy measure – especially one that will re-write the Texas Constitution – when lawmakers will be back taking about the rest of this cash in 2015.

The short hand is simple: While Perry might be threatening lawmakers with another special, they're not going to pass lousy legislation just to make it home for the start of high school football. Moreover, they still have some wiggle room. If lawmakers want to get a measure crafted in time for the November election, as Speaker Joe Straus told them this afternoon, the ballots will not be printed for at least another month.

Now the voting math becomes increasingly unpredictable. The Senate doesn't want Pickett's plan. They have made that clear repeatedly. However, the House rejected the Senate's plan back when it was called Senate Joint Resolution 1, and there's no sign they will be any more forgiving now. Moreover, since this is a constitutional measure, it takes 100 votes to get it out of the House. Pickett's plan was based on a shaky and intricate deal. Can any replacement strike the same balance?

Here's the reality: If no deal is within sight by the time the Senate reconvenes at 4pm tomorrow, then don't make plans for August.

House Joint Resolution 2 Conferees
House: Drew Darby, R-San Angelo; Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; Larry Phillips, R-Sherman; Joe Pickett, D-El Paso; Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.
Senate: Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville; Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands; Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler; John Whitmire, D-Houston.

House Bill 16 Conferees
House: Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving; Pickett; Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston; John Otto, R-Dayton; Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio.
Senate: Nichols; Williams; Hinojosa; Eltife; Whitmire.

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83rd Legislature, Special Session, Rick Perry, Transportation, Texas Senate, Texas House of Representatives, David Dewhurst, Texas Department of Transportation, HJR 2, House Joint Resolution 2, HB 16, House Bill 16, Enabling Legislation, Rainy Day Fund, State Highway Fund, Available School Fund, Gas Tax, Oil and Gas Severance Taxes

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