Local Transit, Toll Collections, Water and more on Medicaid last week in Austin

Posted by Henry, on Sat March 09 2013 at 02:08 AM

For Arlington transportation advocates, the most interesting developments of the last week didn’t happen in Austin, though one of them triggered a response in Austin.

The effort to kick off a pilot mobility program, something initiated at multi-partner meetings at the Chamber a year ago, took an interesting turn early in the week when a would-be regional partner added a twist to a proposed agreement that made it look, well, less agreeable.
Directors of Dallas Area Rapid Transit voted Tuesday night to agree, in principle, to a provide service to Arlington’s proposed pilot program – running service basically from UT Arlington/downtown to the Trinity Railway Express station at Centreport – only if the city committed to call an election to join DART within two years.
The discussion that has evolved over the past year never envisioned anything except running a two-year pilot to test the waters on transit in this very transit-averse city, and the reaction from city officials confirmed that joining DART – or any transit authority – was not on the table at this time.
If that eventuality came to pass, legislation authorizing Arlington to join a transit authority in an adjacent county would be needed, and mid-week discussion in Austin was about whether or not such a bill should be filed before last Friday’s bill-filing deadline.
A couple of Arlington representatives looked at filing such a bill, but ultimately passed on the opportunity. Given the city’s stated reluctance to enter the discussion, and the already sizable legislative load members were carrying, that outcome wasn’t a surprise.
Late Thursday, a bill surfaced to authorize such an election, filed by state Senator John Carona of Dallas. Carona is a long-time transportation advocate – he chaired the Senate Transportation Committee until his outspoken efforts to create revenue for local transit in 2009 got him removed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst – so his interest is not a surprise. His staff indicated that if the legislation proves unnecessary during the last 10 weeks of this legislative session it won’t be pursued, but it’s a placeholder while talks continue. Senate Bill 1461 can be read by clicking on this link.
In another item of local transportation interest, Senator Ken Paxton of McKinney filed a bill allowing the North Texas Tollway Authority to work with counties to deny registration of vehicles that have substantial, unpaid tolls to the agency.
Toll revenue is all NTTA has to operate the system, and when the agency went to a cashless system a few years ago, the number of violators jumped dramatically. While more than 90 percent of those who use NTTAs roads have a TollTag to pay their fees, those who don’t have one are much more likely to ignore invoices, increasing fees and penalties that come with not paying for using the roads.
To toll authority directors, the unpaid fines are akin to stealing; most people pay, and those who don’t drive up the costs for everyone else.
While the agency has done a much better job of collecting unpaid fines lately – with the help of professionals in the field – the unpaid amount in 2011 was $12.5 million, according to NTTA Chairman Ken Barr when spoke at the chamber’s Center for Public Policy Advisory Council meeting two weeks ago. Paxton’s bill is posted on the public policy page of the Chamber’s web site.
Early next week the vehicles to put money into the state’s water development plan will move forward in both houses. House bill 11 by Allan Ritter and Senate Bill 22 by Troy Fraser, the chairs of the natural resources committees in their respective houses, go to the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees today and Tuesday. Since they address spending money – in this case an allocation from Texas’ Economic Stabilization Fund – the money committees get to have their say.
Water funding has been one of the few consensus items this session, the abundance of revenue in the Rainy Day Fund has made it the go-to line item to establish a revolving fund to make low-interest loans or subsidies for local water projects. Using the Rainy Day Fund requires two-thirds approval in both houses of the legislature, but this is one of the few times that barrier doesn’t appear to be a problem.
What might be a problem is a late-week concession by legislators that spending from the Rainy Day Fund counts against the overall spending limit the state imposes on itself. The non-partisan Legislative Budget Board had said all along that was the case, but budget writers in both houses argued that it didn’t. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts reluctantly conceded last week that the spending limit would include money from the rainy day fund, though he seemed pretty unhappy about it. State Representative Donna Howard of Austin has filed a bill specifically exempting that funding from the spending limit calculation, but even it if passes, it’s unclear whether or not it would apply to the current situation.
The spending limit has seldom been an issue: It’s derived from applying a percentage – the sum of population growth and inflation – to all non-constitutionally dedicated spending in the current budget cycle. Since the current budget took a $24 billion hit from the previous year, the percentage is applied to a reduced base, limiting the ability to fix some of the last legislative sessions’ problems as quickly as some legislators would like.
The situation is a real-life lesson in why artificially limiting property value increases for tax purposes, or applying pulled-from-the-air revenue-collection limits are a bad idea. When a downturn hits – and they hit even in Texas – the limits dig in hard and impose significant barriers to addressing the infrastructure, health care and education concerns of the state’s growing population.

Finally, the House budget writers spent three hours Friday discussing the most controversial issue that may never get voted on this session: expanding eligibility for Medicaid services and taking the $100 billion the federal government is offering to cushion the increased costs of Medicaid over the next 10 years.
Billy Hamilton, who served for years as the state’s chief revenue estimator, told appropriations committee members this was too good a deal to pass up.
“I really don’t think you’re going to see a more overwhelming fiscal opportunity during your service here,” he said. “I served this Legislature for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.” A more complete discussion of the committee Medicaid hearing is posted here on the Texas Tribune’s web site.

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