Weary Texas lawmakers again tackle road funding

PAUL J. WEBER,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Wearily dragging into an unusual eighth month of the Texas Legislature, a House committee on Thursday again approved boosting spending for overcrowded and crumbling roads, a plan twice sunk at the Capitol this summer by turmoil and no-show lawmakers.

The ongoing failure to ratify an extra $900 million for transportation is raising political stakes on the eve of the campaign season for 2014, when Texas faces a major shake-up of leadership with the departure of Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, wants more roads to meet the needs of a booming Texas population before he goes. He lashed out at the House and ordered a third special session — the first since 2006 — when a second try fizzled out this week.

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On Monday, House members will revisit what is largely the same transportation bill they failed to pass last time, with a new twist: a requirement that the Texas Department of Transportation cut internal costs by $100 million before being handed more money for highways.

Democratic Rep. Joe Pickett, who is carrying the bill, said the reductions would not mean layoffs of state employees.

“That’s not going to happen,” Pickett said. “There’s a lot of ways for an agency with (billions of dollars), through efficiencies and savings, to come up with $100 million.”

Pickett said the cost-cutting aims to appease critics wary of giving TxDOT more funds without assurances that the agency is committed to spending every dollar wisely.

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TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson told the House Select Committee on Transportation Funding that the reductions were possible.

“We’re doing everything we can to reduce spending,” Wilson said.

Road capacity has sorely lagged behind population growth in Texas the past quarter-century. One major stream of highway construction revenue comes is a gas tax that charges drivers 20 cents per gallon at the pump. But the tax rate hasn’t budged in decades, while the population has soared and cars have become more fuel-efficient.

With tax hikes of any kind unpopular in the Republican-controlled Legislature, lawmakers hatched a plan to siphon money currently funneled to the state’s Rainy Day Fund and put it toward roads. Pickett has proposed giving budget-writing lawmakers authority to regularly set a minimum balance for that reserves fund.

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Even given another $900 million, it’s still only a sliver of the $4 billion more that TxDOT said is needed just to maintain the status quo on roads.

The Legislature a month ago was poised to ratify the spending, but that was before Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis embarked on an 11-hour filibuster to block new abortion restrictions. Her marathon speech ran out the clock on the first special session, with the help of shouting protesters in the Senate gallery, leaving no time for the transportation bill.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who has faced criticism from fellow Republicans about his handling of that session, acknowledged this week that he could have put the transportation bill up for a vote first.

“I take full responsibility for not foreseeing the effect of the international socialist movement organizers and the different groups that simply overwhelmed our security,” said Dewhurst, who faces a stiff primary challenge for his job next year.

Perry called a second special session, during which GOP lawmakers pushed through the abortion restrictions, but the TxDOT funding was left undone.

Democrats have used the twice-stalled transportation funding to blast Republicans for failed leadership. Those critics include Davis, who is weighing a run for governor.

The House had a second chance to approve more highway dollars earlier this week, but the absence of 23 lawmakers for the vote hampered the bill’s prospects. Some lawmakers believe the measure might have prevailed in a full chamber, but attendance is waning as the summer drags on.

The Texas Legislature is supposed to handle its business in 140 days every two years. Thursday marked Day 203.