A proposed constitutional amendment that would divert oil and gas taxes to roads figures to speed through the Texas Senate and could pass that chamber as early as Friday, legislators said Tuesday, the day after Gov. Rick Perry added transportation funding to the special session agenda.
But with just two weeks left in the session, the unpredictable politics of the House, the waning calendar and Perry’s addition Tuesday of abortion to the session call could mean trouble for the highway funding measure. The House is on recess and won’t convene again until Monday, when there will be only nine days left in the session.
“The votes in the Senate appear to be there” for Senate Joint Resolution 2, said transportation lobbyist and former Perry aide Kris Heckmann. “The question will be, are there a hundred votes in the House amongst the Democrats, establishment Republicans and the newer Republicans added in the last couple of election cycles?”
The measure will get a hearing, and probably a vote, in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.
Legislators, anticipating that Perry might bring transportation into the 30-day special session’s mix, have filed at least 20 bills and joint resolutions (which put constitutional amendments to a public vote) on the subject. Legislative leaders are focused on SJR 2 and two identical pieces of legislation in the House, measures that, if approved by Texas voters in November, would put an additional $850 million into transportation this year and more as time goes on.
With a variety of transportation funding measures stalled in the Legislature near the end of the regulator session in May, state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, first thought of using oil and gas revenue for transportation rather than sending that money to the state’s rainy day fund. That fund, which under current law and projections figures to have about $8 billion in it by the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year, now receives 75 percent of oil and gas severance taxes above a threshold set in 1987. The rest goes to the state’s general fund.
Under SJR 2, co-sponsored by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, half of that 75 percent would instead go to the Texas Department of Transportation. That would amount to about $1.8 billion in the state’s next two-year budget cycle, increasing TxDOT funding by almost 9 percent. That money would be constitutionally dedicated to construction and maintenance of highways.
“If you don’t want to raise taxes or fees, or create toll roads,” Nichols said, “you have to do something. (SJR 2) doesn’t touch school money, and it doesn’t touch general revenues. And you’re not removing money from the rainy day fund. You’re just not putting it in as fast.”
Whether that distinction will matter to some House conservatives, many of whom opposed using existing rainy day fund money during the regular legislative session, was unclear Tuesday. Officials with the fiscally hawkish Texas Public Policy Foundation declined to comment. State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, gave SJR 2 a mixed review.
“I support the principle of pay-as-you-go for roads” that the oil and gas tax revenue would support, Simpson said. “But I’m afraid all this is doing is allowing spending outside the constitutional limit. We have to restrain government to living within its means.”
Joint resolutions, before they can go to the voters, must get a two-thirds vote of all members in both the House and Senate, not just those on hand for the vote. During a summer special session, where attendance can be depressed by lawmakers’ vacation plans, the requirement for 100 votes in the House represents another hurdle.
In a body with 95 Republicans, some of whom are likely to oppose Nichols’ measure, getting “yes” votes from an appreciable number of the House’s 55 Democrats will be key. State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he will be one of them. He said the measure has a chance of getting through the House.
Unlike another highway funding bill during the regular session that drew little Democratic support in the House because it would have increased vehicle registration fees and disproportionately affected people with modest incomes, SJR 2 instead reallocates an existing tax paid by oil and gas corporations.