Two measures that would increase state highway spending got preliminary approval Monday from the Texas House.
But numerous political and parliamentary hurdles remain for both, meaning the Texas Department of Transportation’s roller coaster summer of waiting for more money will continue for at least three more days and likely into next week.
The House on a 92-32 bipartisan vote gave second reading approval to House Joint Resolution 2, a proposed constitutional amendment that would end the decades-long diversion of a quarter of the state’s 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax to public education. That would mean an additional $820 million next year for TxDOT, and a like amount for each of the next few years.
But the measure, which would go before voters in November if it gets final approval from the House and somehow clears the Texas Senate, would also ensure that schools don’t lose state revenue. It would require that public education get an amount equal to a quarter of the gas tax’s yield from oil and gas taxes, dollars that otherwise would have gone into the state’s rainy day fund.
TxDOT currently spends about $10 billion a year, so the extra funding would amount to an 8-percent increase. TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson said earlier this year that the agency needs an additional $4 billion a year to maintain the 80,000-mile road system and add capacity to control urban traffic congestion.
However, despite the heavy majority for HJR 2 on Monday, its passage through the House remains in doubt. Constitutional amendments require 100 votes on either second or third reading. The House likely will take it up again on Thursday, bill sponsor state Rep. Joe Pickett said, and he will attempt to find those additional eight votes from among Monday’s opponents and the 25 who didn’t vote.
“Having 92 positive votes with (25) members absent means it’s alive,” Pickett said.
His co-sponsor, state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said “we’re definitely within striking distance.”
Those 92 yes votes included more than 50 Republicans, this despite the earlier defeat Tuesday of a GOP-sponsored attempt to insert into the bill what would be a constitutionally mandated floor for the rainy day fund. Democrats, Pickett said, unanimously oppose that provision because it could have the effect of limiting spending on other state needs.
The House, on a voice vote after little discussion, also passed House Bill 16, a companion measure that would make needed changes to the tax code and would also raise some money for transportation. The bill would direct to TxDOT a third of revenue from sales taxes on motor vehicles, but only above a $3.6 billion annual threshold. That is the amount the tax is expected to generate in the next two years, meaning that TxDOT likely would not see any of the revenue until the 2015-16 fiscal year.
The fate of both pieces of legislation in the Texas Senate is far from clear.
The Senate has already passed Senate Joint Resolution 1, a much different proposal which would divert to TxDOT half of the money that now goes to the rainy day fund. It does not touch the gas tax or public education funding. The new revenue for TxDOT would amount to almost $900 million initially and, because it is tied to oil and gas tax revenue, has the potential to climb more rapidly than the more stable gas tax revenue in HJR 2. But the money would not start to flow to TxDOT until a year after the House measure.
Beyond that, the Senate legislation has the rainy day floor in it that the House rejected Monday, and some Republican senators have made it clear their vote is contingent on that remaining in the legislation.
Pickett said the 70-49 vote on that rainy day floor Monday means there is no way that SJR 1 could now muster 100 votes in the House.
A bill identical to SJR 1 did in fact get 107 votes in the House at the end of the special session and likely would have passed the Senate. But it died on the session’s final day when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst declined to bring it up for a vote before a filibuster began on abortion legislation.