Texas Legislature debates road funding

CHRIS TOMLINSON,Associated Press JIM VERTUNO,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Legislature convened Monday to debate new funding for roads and bridges by diverting money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

A deal debated in the House on Monday evening would provide $1.2 billion a year for transportation by diverting half of the money currently flowing into the Rainy Day Fund. Because the Rainy Day Fund was created with a constitutional amendment, a supermajority of lawmakers is needed to makes change to it and voters must give final approval in the November 2014 general election.

The package’s author, Rep. Joe Pickett, announced before the debate began that he had met with numerous lawmakers to work out a compromise that could earn a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature. Previous efforts had failed because conservatives demanded constitutional safeguards for the Rainy Day Fund, while other lawmakers wanted to retain control over it.

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The El Paso Democrat has led weeks of negotiations and his proposed constitutional amendment only authorizes the diversion of funds, with a separate bill providing the mechanism and specifics for when the money is diverted and how it’s spent.

Pickett’s bill would create a joint committee of lawmakers that would decide a minimum balance for the fund every two years, and the diversion of money to transportation projects would stop if the fund falls below that level. Within the first 45 days of every legislative session, lawmakers could vote to change the minimum balance or leave it alone.

The bill also requires the Texas Department of Transportation to find $100 million in savings and spend that money to pay off long-term debt. Pickett said that will save $47 million in interest payments. The department would also have to spend the money on projects across the state.

Lawmakers of all stripes tried to amend Pickett’s bill and constitutional amendment, but he only supported those that he knew Senate negotiators would accept. One of the amendments he allowed was to spend some of the money on expanding the Port of Houston to accommodate larger container ships following the enlargement of the Panama Canal.

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Gov. Rick Perry called the Legislature into a third special session after lawmakers failed to boost spending for roads and bridges. Experts say Texas needs to spend $4 billion more per year just to maintain the current road network, but the Republican majority has refused to raise taxes or fees to pay for them. Diverting money from the state’s savings account was considered the more politically acceptable option.

Business groups warned earlier Monday that the Texas economy would suffer if the Legislature didn’t do something to improve the state’s deteriorating infrastructure.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said the no new taxes or fees position of many conservative Republicans was hindering economic development.

The lack of road funding was reflected in a recent Texas Department of Transportation decision to convert 83 miles of paved roads to gravel roads in oil and gas drilling areas because it lacks the funding to maintain the paved roads for the higher, heavier traffic. Lawmakers from rural districts rallied around an amendment by Rep. Tracy King, D- Batesville, to prioritize spending on those roads.

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“Do you want to be in the first Legislature to let a paved road become a gravel road?” King asked.

But Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Philips, R-Sherman, said the Senate would reject the amendment and lawmakers ultimately rejected it.

“It’s absolutely a problem in Texas today, because there are those out there right now who are saying that these goals can be accomplished without additional funding, and that’s simply not true and it’s wrong for the long-run of Texas,” Hammond said. “We try to take the long view, investments in water and roads are desperately needed in Texas and they are the right thing to do.”

The Senate was expected to take up the package later Monday night.