Legislation to increase Texas highway funding, thought to be making a smooth, quick trip through the Legislature’s second special session, encountered some turbulence Tuesday in the House.
The ebbing of Democratic support, necessary for passage, could mean the proposed constitutional amendment will never make it to voters in November.
Some House Democrats, who had supported the proposal in an identical form during the first special session in June, said Tuesday they now oppose a provision making increased funding for the Texas Department of Transportation contingent on maintaining a minimum balance in the state’s rainy day fund.
Under House Joint Resolution 1, and its Senate twin, TxDOT starting in November 2014 would get half of the oil and gas severance tax revenue that now goes to the rainy day fund. That would amount to $878 million in the first year and would rise after that.
But a provision added in the Senate at the behest of conservatives during the first special session, and modified by the House days later, would reduce or eliminate that TxDOT funding if the state reserve fund dropped below a certain threshold.
That rainy day floor, defined in HJR 1 (and SJR 1 in the Senate) as one-third of the fund’s constitutionally mandated maximum amount, would start out at $4.8 billion and probably increase over time. That would have the effect, some Democrats said, of discouraging use of rainy day fund money.
“I’m not going to vote for it with the floor in it,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, one of the House’s longest-serving members and a leader of the Democratic caucus. “And I think there are others that will go along with me. … It’s a floor with an elevator on it.”
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who, like Turner, was among 25 Democrats who voted for the constitutional amendment during the first special session, told its sponsor, state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, that the floor gives her pause as well.
“This ties our hands, in a sense,” Howard said Tuesday when HJR 1 came before the House Appropriations Committee. “It would be difficult to go below that amount because it would hurt TxDOT.”
Phillips said having the floor “is a compromise to come up with 100 votes. I’ve lost two just sitting here. Maybe more.”
Committee chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, left HJR 1 pending, along with several bills that would raise money for TxDOT in other ways. He said the committee would probably vote on HJR 1, perhaps later this week, after the Senate passes its twin.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen over here,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, sponsor of another proposed constitutional amendment to raise TxDOT funding that also came before Pitts’ committee Tuesday. “But my last word is that Pickett will support whatever comes out of this committee.”
The Senate, which could have taken up SJR 1 Tuesday, instead will consider it Thursday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said.
The legislation, which requires 100 votes to pass the 150-member House rather than a simple majority because it is a proposed constitutional amendment, got 105 votes and cleared the House on June 24. But it needed a confirming vote in the Senate.
That did not occur because Dewhurst, looking to make Democrats filibuster as long as possible if they wanted to stop Senate Bill 5, a measure regulating abortions, declined to bring up the transportation funding before the abortion bill on the session’s last day. The filibuster on SB 5, and a now-famous parliamentary debate and audience outburst that followed it, consumed the rest of the day and ended the special session.
“There are lots of rumblings that people are seriously looking if they want to continue supporting it,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said about HJR 1 and SJR 1. “The best shot at passing it was in the first special session. (Dewhurst’s) decision to not bring it up until after the divisive SB 5 may well have made it a casualty.”