The last time we talk about transportation, for awhile

Posted by Henry, on Fri August 16 2013 at 08:06 PM

By the time this Chamber of Commerce begins urging voters to approve the transportation funding constitutional amendment on the ballot for next year, we will have already started talking to lawmakers going to Austin in 2015 about how that amendment, if passed, isn’t nearly what’s needed to fix our transportation funding problems.

We won’t talk about this again for a few months.  Instead, we’ll be concentrating on passing Proposition 6 on the November 5, 2013 ballot.

But to wrap up the seemingly endless maneuvering to plug the $4 billion per year hole in spending for road maintenance and congestion relief, state legislators two weeks ago put up a measure for inclusion on the 2014 general election ballot and left town before Governor Perry could give them something else to do.

A constitutional amendment to divert half of the money intended to go into the Economic Stabilization Fund to Fund 6, the transportation account, passed both houses of the Legislature on August 11. When initially discussed, the measure’s price tag was about $800 million per year. After additional revenue estimates, that number had surged to $1.2 billion per year.

But, before the celebrating commences, the Texas Department of Transportation at the same time announced the $4 billion per year shortfall was now more like $5 billion.

It was a lot of angst for, as House Speaker Joe Straus pointedly noted, about 25 percent of the solution.

The debate, in the end, wasn’t even about the diversion. It was about how much would be left in the economic stabilization fund – the rainy day fund – how much was adequate to keep in the rainy day fund and how do determine how much was adequate to keep in the rainy day fund.

The most conservative lawmakers tried to put a minimum amount – a floor, they called it – for rainy day fund balances in the constitution. That struck most Republicans and all Democrats as a foolhardy notion, since the economy changes over time and a constitutional number could be completely inadequate or wildly overfunded in the future.

After a few more skirmishes and some dark muttering about not trusting the voters, legislators finally decided that the House Speaker and Lieutenant Governor would appoint a select committee to recommend a minimum balance before each legislative session. Legislators would be given a chance to approve that balance or a different one, but if there is not agreement within the first 45 days of a legislative session, roughly by mid-February, then the committee’s recommendation prevails.

It also, as a bonus, creates a substantive piece of legislative action during a period when nothing much is going on.

Many members think the rainy day fund floor is unnecessary, but to get to a two-thirds supermajority it had to be included. Democrats weren’t in favor the floor, arguing ti traps money that could be used for other purposes and, in a crisis, puts needed funding off-limits. But enough tea-party leaning Republicans opposed the bill without a floor that something had to be created. This compromise appears to be a good one because no one is really enthusiastic about it.

The bigger challenge, frankly, is messaging for the next legislative session and beyond. Leaving aside the communications effort to pass this amendment when it comes up for a vote in 2014, the real challenge is getting the public to believe there is still more to do on transportation in the 2015 legislative session after they just voted less than two months earlier to kick in $1 billion. Legislators who supported this measure say they know there is more to do; we’ll see if they remember that 17 months from now.

That memory is important because $1 billion a year, or $1.2 billion a year, is not $5 billion. When the money goes into a formula and is broken up by region, what might be available for new projects in North Texas – all of North Texas, not just Tarrant County – is about $300 million. Nothing to shrug off, but given the expansive list of projects awaiting funding, not a panacea, either.

Whether legislators can ever be moved to put actual new money into the system in the form of a fee or gas-tax increase is an open question, one that up until now has been answered with an emphatic “no.” And that history is what caused Straus to criticize this measure, suggesting legislators needed to do more than just move money coming from the existing revenue streams.

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