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Borel: Transportation amendment symptom of crisis in state funding

With the November elections behind us and the 84th legislative session looming, the debate over the next budget is well underway. Lawmakers have a clear choice before them: Continue with business as usual, or take the opportunity to make meaningful investments in our state. Members of Texas Forward, a coalition representing more than 60 organizations from across Texas, will be watching to see if this Legislature will work to find real solutions to our ongoing funding woes.

While it’s certainly true that Texas needs to be investing more to maintain and improve our physical infrastructure, Texas’ human infrastructure is also in need of some serious attention. As Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey noted in a 2013 article about the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to convert some roads to gravel, “Other state programs have their equivalents of the gravel roads. They’re just not allowed to talk about it.”

Consider Proposition 1, just passed by Texas voters earlier this month. Prop. 1 is a constitutional amendment that will divert more than $1 billion of revenue that would otherwise flow into the Economic Stabilization Fund (rainy day fund) into the State Highway Fund. It’s not the $4 billion our highway system really needs, but it’s better than ignoring problems with our roads.

But Prop. 1 is really a symptom of an outdated revenue system that can no longer keep pace with the needs of 26 million Texans. The 83rd Legislature punted the highway funding decision to voters rather than take the political risk of appropriating the money from the rainy day fund outright, finding new sources of revenue to fund roads or voting to bust the spending cap.

Taking into account Texas’ rapid population growth and inflation, the current budget doesn’t keep up with our state’s needs. We spend less per-pupil than before the recession, and legislators undershot general revenue Medicaid funding by nearly $1 billion. Yet there are still calls for tax cuts on top of the $1 billion in giveaways passed by lawmakers last session.

Imagine if Texans voted to allocate the same resources to human infrastructure that they have to roads and water projects. What if $1 billion were used to increase the reimbursement rate for Texas social service providers, financial aid for college students, or in workforce development to improve the competitiveness of Texas workers? An investment of $1 billion would go a long way toward providing the additional funds needed to provide full-day universal pre-kindergarten in Texas. It could help reduce CPS caseloads to improve child safety.

Texans deserve quality education, healthy communities and economic opportunity, and our lawmakers can deliver if they choose to. Even with Prop. 1’s highway fund diversion, the Economic Stabilization Fund will weigh in at more than $8 billion come 2015. Members of the 84th Legislature should use this vast resource, resist destabilizing tax cuts and recognize and reject legislation that only robs Peter to pay Paul. They will have a chance to make the investments now to keep our state strong in the future by finding sustainable, adequate sources of funding not only for our highways but also for our schools, our hospitals, our parks and all the other public services in Texas that sure enough have their equivalents of gravel roads.

Borel is the executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and serves as the chairman of the Texas Forward Steering Committee.

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