UTA Issues Move Forward, Transportation Gets A Boost (but not commitments for any money)

Posted by Jon Weist, on Fri April 12 2013 at 10:02 PM

With the exception of one major education bill and a couple of technical, but important items of local interest, most of the last week’s legislative activity amounted to a ramp-up for the session’s more difficult topics and a lot of one-on-one advocacy outside the posted meetings.

Transportation leaders made a major push last week to find revenue for the state’s rapidly diminishing ability to construct new roads or maintain existing ones, while religious leaders came out in force for school voucher legislation – they don’t call it that – to fund instruction in their private, parochial schools.

On Thursday the Senate approved a key piece of the education choice agenda, voting 30-1 on a bill that gradually expands the number of charter schools allowed in Texas. Senator Dan Patrick, the high-profile, tea-party affiliated chairman of the Senate Education Committee, earned praise from Democrats who are often at odds with him – such as Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis – for modifying his original legislation to be less onerous to independent school districts and to build some additional controls into charter-school expansion.

Significantly gone from Patrick’s original bill was a requirement that school district’s be forced to turn over “underutilized” facilities to chargers for $1, with no provision for recovering the property. Charters have expanded in Texas, but even advocates who support charters have issues with the inability to cancel underperforming charters. Charter schools, in turn, have struggled with finding revenue to build, expand and/or maintain their facilities, which do not have state aid attached to them.

The version of Senate Bill 2 approved last week will be posted on www.voteforarlington.com, the Chamber’s companion web site, as soon as it’s available.

In a short session Friday morning, House members kicked out a technical change to the Major Events Trust Fund so that games within the college football Bowl Championship Series qualify for the fund. The fund – not really a fund at all but a reimbursement program that plows some portion of sales tax dollars collected from major national events back into the local jurisdictions that hosted the events – can only be used for events specifically named in the bill. North Texas cities received several million dollars in distributions as a result of hosting the 2011 Super Bowl.

The trust fund has its critics, particularly upon news that some areas have used the money for structural improvements that are used for the event in question but also continue to be used for routine events. The high-profile item is the purchase with fund money of a new scoreboard at a venue in Houston. Bills to reduce how much can go for those improvements, and how much can be remitted in general, are working their way through both houses.

Friday’s vote was 130-4, with all state house members who represent portions of Arlington voting in favor except for Matt Krause, who was absent. David Simpson, the almost challenger this session to Speaker Joe Straus and the man who is famous for trying to stop the Transportation Security Administration from searches at airports, led three other east Texas Republicans in voting no.

Two items of importance to UT Arlington made it out of separate committees on Thursday. Representative Diane Patrick’s amended legislation to simplify state approvals for property purchases east of the UTA campus was approved by the House Higher Education Committee in a hastily called meeting on the House floor.

Patrick changed her bill to eliminate some properties in the potential acquisition area, though the legislation’s thrust was aimed at getting Austin entities – the University of Texas system and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board – to move faster once the university reaches a deal on a purchase. Nothing in the bill, and nothing removed from the bill, stops the university from negotiating a purchase with a private property owner.

UTA’s growth has been an important driver of downtown growth, and the chamber has supported efforts to continue that momentum, including facilitating university purchase of property outside its current boundaries.

Also on Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee approved a sweeping bill to pay for building improvements in most of the state’s university systems through the use of Tuition Revenue Bonds. The legislation included $32.1 million for a new Life-Science Building at UTA, though officials say the projected cost of that facility is closer to $60 million. There are plans in place to make up the difference from other sources.

Both of those bills need to move to the floor of their respective chambers, so there is a long way to go though the UTA bill appears headed for a local calendar in the House, which generally means no opposition.

It was a big week, without a lot of fanfare, for transportation advocates. On Thursday the Dallas and Tarrant county legislative delegations conducted a joint meeting focused on a push to find money for the almost-depleted Fund 6 – the dedicated transportation fund – in the state budget. About half the members of both delegations attended or sent someone, though whether any of the more conservative, no-tax, no-fee, no-more-money-for-anything members (most from Tarrant County) were moved by the presentations from area business leaders remains to be seen.

A chart demonstrating the serious drop-off in available transportation funding around the state was distributed, along with another showing how far the state can go in closing the gap between projected revenue and projected need with measures that received positive hearings Wednesday in a House Appropriations subcommittee. Those charts are posted on the public policy page of the Chamber’s web site, www.arlingtontx.com or by clicking here.

The Wednesday hearing, for transportation advocates, focused on four bills designed to get money into the transportation fund without increasing the gas tax, which, though the most straightforward, simplest solution, continues to be off the table in an era when even something that actually functions as a user fee can’t be increased if it is called a tax.

State Representative Drew Darby of San Angelo sponsored House bills 3664, 3665 and 3666, which respectively raise the annual motor vehicle registration fee, create a state infrastructure bank and increase the fee on motor vehicle inspections.

The bank would serve the purpose of providing revolving, matching loans for transportation projects similar to the mechanism approved by the House in March for financing water projects. The registration fee is a straight increase for putting more money into Fund 6, and the inspection fee would go to the state’s general fund so that the cost of the Department of Public Safety – the biggest diversion of transportation funds in Fund 6 – could be accommodated without creating a hole in the general fund budget.

A fourth bill favored by conservative members is HB 479 by Irving Representative Linda Harper-Brown. Like some measures championed by transportation committee chairs in the house and the senate, Harper-Brown’s legislation would shift the revenue coming into the state from taxes on motor vehicle sales from the general fund to Fund 6. Harper-Brown has served a long time on transportation committees, but she has also been a significant roadblock to putting new money into the system, and even as she was saying last week that she was willing to look at all options, she trashed any suggestion of increasing or indexing the gasoline tax.

Her bill has the virtue – for conservatives in particular – of putting money into transportation without raising any new revenue. It puts a floor under the amount to go to Fund 6 so that the current revenue stream for the general fund – estimated at $2.5 billion per year – can continue to flow into the general fund. It also doesn’t begin the transfer in the next two-year budget at all, instead beginning it in 2016.

And, finally, on Thursday, the Senate Finance committee heard Chairman Tommy Williams’ plan to pull $6 billion out of the economic stabilization fund – the Rainy Day Fund – and use it to kick-start water and transportation projects. Williams’ proposal comes in the form of a constitutional amendment, which would keep the spending from counting against the state’s spending cap. While busting the cap takes only a majority vote in both houses, it’s fraught with political peril for members who don’t want to defend going over a spending limit, even a fairly arbitrary one.

By instead proposing the spending as a constitutional amendment, it would be the voters who break the spending limit, not the legislators.

Like almost every measure addressing spending for transportation, even this idea has its problems. It doesn’t eliminate the $1 billion per year the Texas Department of Transportation is already paying on debt, it doesn’t create a new, sustainable revenue stream for the state’s transportation needs going forward and it sets a bad precedent for use of the Rainy Day fund by making spending from that fund a constitutional issue.

Some freshman Republicans are already pushing back on using the rainy day fund, arguing spending for water and transportation should come from unnecessary spending elsewhere in the budget. No such spending has been identified, however, at least not that would draw majority agreement and certainly not of the magnitude Williams has proposed.

With the fund projected to be almost $12 billion at the end of the 2015 budget year, and projections for it to be maxed out fairly quickly after that, it’s difficult to understand what uses the fund can be legitimately used for under the conservative argument. If the 2011 session, with a $27 billion deficit, wasn’t a rainy day – which it wasn’t, at least insomuch as that would have interfered with Governor Rick Perry’s presidential ambitions – then the argument that it not be touched for one-time purposes but saved for a real crisis sounds a little hollow. Texas survived hurricanes and wildfires without tapping the fund – though the latter has created a budget hole that a yet-to-come supplemental spending bill will have to fix – so, the question for future consideration is, what constitutes a rainy day?

The answer is elusive, and it depends a lot on the ideology and political ambition of those answering the questions. Using the fund for transportation is not ideal, but transportation advocates have long been resigned to one temporary fix after another as the revenue from the gas tax continues to shrink, in relative terms, compared to the growing need.

And, for North Texans, the news is a little worse because most of the transportation measures being considered, including Williams $6 billion infusion, strictly prohibit using any of the money for rail or transit projects.

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