Lawmakers leave without giving drivers toll tax reliefBy Terri Hall
May 28, 2019
Sometimes a win isn’t gauged by what you pass, but by what you stopped. The results of the 86th legislative session are definitely the later. In short, the taxpayers got very little as far as toll tax relief. With 28 different toll systems and 55 toll projects in place today, without passing toll cessation Texas drivers will never see an end to paying toll taxes nor an end to toll agencies expanding their existing systems out further and further — forever. However, the grassroots opposition to five bad toll road bills that would have handed Texas’ public highways to private, foreign entities in 50-year sweetheart deals along with other giveaways to private toll companies, managed to kill all of them -- the worst being HB 1951 by Matt Krause, a member of the Freedom Caucus.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) alone (not to mention the other 12 local toll agencies across the state) has put more than two million Texas drivers into collections for unpaid tolls. Just TxDOT has imposed over $1 billion in fines and fees in addition to the actual tolls owed. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (Austin area) testified before the Senate Transportation Committee last August that of the $100 million its collected in tolls, $85 million was fines and fees. Toll fines and fees are out of control and making Texas drivers virtually an unlimited ATM machine to feed relentless unelected toll bureaucracies — in short, tolling has become a license to steal.
Many toll billing problems are unintentional on the part of the driver with malfunctioning toll tags, expired payment cards, and changes in address creating a massive roadblock for millions of Texas drivers. Yet, the grassroots toll collection reform bills (SB 382 and its House companion HB 4580) never got a hearing in either chamber’s Transportation Committee, despite promises to expand the toll collection reform that passed last session that capped administrative fees at $48/year and other penalties at $250/year. Reforms from the 85th session only applied to TxDOT and a handful of other projects, leaving millions of Texas drivers still facing unpayable fines and fees and being deemed criminals for non-payment, resulting in a block on vehicle registration or having one’s car impounded.
When the legislature finally repealed the Driver Responsibility Program (HB 2048 by Zerwas that traps drivers with unplayable surcharges that prevent them from driving legally) and banned red light camera tickets, HB 1631 (Stickland), this session, which includes prohibiting cities from blocking vehicle registration over an unpaid red light camera ticket, it defies logic that they failed to address this problem that criminalizes millions of Texas drivers over unpaid toll bills. SB 198 (Schwertner) and SB 1311 (Bettencourt) allow drivers to be billed electronically. Schwertner’s bill requires toll entities to check for an electronic toll tag account before sending a paper bill by mail (eliminating the longstanding double billing schemes), to notify drivers of a malfunctioning toll tag if problems occur more than 10 times in a 30 day period, and requiring toll entities to share information to prevent double billing for the same transaction, but both bills barely make a dent in the massive toll collection scam. Lawmakers also decided to make parents criminals if they don't face their two-years olds in their car seat the right direction by passing HB 448 (Turner).
Tolls in place foreverThe bill known as ‘toll cessation’ (SB 374 by Hall and HB 436 by Shaheen) — to force tolls to come off the road when the debt is paid — was given a token hearing in the House, but was left to die in a tolling subcommittee. Senate Transportation Committee Chair Robert Nichols once again blocked the bill from even getting a hearing this session. Keeping tolls in place after the debt is paid violates the Texas Constitution Article 1, Sec. 26 that prohibits perpetuities, a fact lawmakers have been made aware of since 2011, but no action has been taken to force toll agencies to comply. Vast numbers of lobbyists have been hired by 13 different toll agencies across Texas to ensure this unconstitutional practice continues. Both SB 29 (Hall) and HB 281 (Middleton) to ban the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying failed to pass — thanks to taxpayer-funded lobbyists crawling the capitol to kill any restrictions on their ability to lobby against taxpayers.
Foreign-owned toll road frenzyBut what did the leadership choose to advance instead? A massive bill to re-authorize foreign-owned toll roads forever with no expiration, HB 1951 (Krause), along with several other bills that were giveaways to the private toll industry. Krause flip flopped his position opposing foreign-owned toll roads (voting to kill it) last session, only to author a bill authorizing such toll contracts into perpetuity this session. Doing so directly contradicted Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign pledge of ‘No more tolls.’
New House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Terry Canales flip flopped on his position against toll roads. He promised voters in writing that he was opposed to all forms of tolling when he was seeking the endorsement of anti-toll groups when he was first elected in 2012.
Canales promised, “I do not support any form of tolling. First and foremost, I do not like the concept nor practice of building toll roads. Furthermore, I am adamantly opposed to investing in toll roads that cannot pull their own weight so to speak. What good does it do us as taxpayers to have to subsidize and/or pay to build a toll road then pay to use it? This appears to me as a public fraud, and a gross injustice.
“As a legislator I would strongly oppose toll roads in general. I think it is highly unfair to the taxpayers to be burdened by toll roads which have already been built and paid for by their tax dollars.
“Use existing funds to finance our roads (including ending diversions of road taxes to non-road uses). TxDOT should regularly be audited from top to bottom. I believe many of the funding problems we have with respect to our infrastructure are directly related to the mismanagement of funds, and poor accounting practices. Without fiscal transparency and accountability, we will continue to face budget problems, which in turn lead to the demise of our infrastructure."
Yet, Canales not only heard and voted five bad foreign-owned toll road bills out of his committee (which require massive public subsidies and taxpayers guarantee the private operator’s profits that he said he was opposed to), he authored two of them. Thankfully, the grassroots opposition organized behind Texans for Toll-Free Highways and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (Texas TURF) killed all five bills.
When Ft. Worth drivers have recently faced paying $15 to drive just 5 miles on Spain-based Cintra’s toll system, the North Tarrant Express, it’s going to anger a whole lot of Texans that these problems continue unabated. These toll entities, whether public or private, have been given a license to steal from Texas drivers, well beyond the actual cost of building the road. Drivers need tax relief, too, and they need to hold their legislators accountable for their inaction.
Property rights & TransparencyThere is some good news to report with regards to transparency and property rights. SB 943 (Watson) passed, cleaning up several loopholes the Texas Supreme Court warned lawmakers existed that allowed private companies that do business with the state to keep significant aspects of their contracts secret from the public.
SB 1648 (Bettencourt) would make it a criminal offense for elected officials to violate quorum. Something known as a ‘walking quorum’ is a practice that’s become rampant, particularly with the Austin City Council, where public officials discuss upcoming agenda items behind closed doors amongst themselves outside of a formal posted public meeting, a deliberate violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Putting criminal penalties on officials who violate the law will put teeth into the act and make any violation more enforceable.
HB 803 (Patterson) would require toll agencies to produce better financial reports so that elected officials as well as the public can more easily discern where the toll revenues are going — is the toll going directly to retire bond debt, expanding or constructing new toll projects, or other 'mobility' initiatives? The bill will expose a longstanding cancer known as ‘system financing,’ which is the practice of obligating surplus revenue from one project to build or expand other toll projects, co-mingling funds together to ensure no toll project is ever paid off. Following the money trail is the first step to getting toll cessation finally passed.
In the final days of the session, pipeline companies were successful in hijacking a strong property rights bill, SB 421 (Kolkhorst) using the iron fist of Rep. Tom Craddick, who took the bill away from its House sponsor, gutted it, then placed it on the local calendar so it couldn’t be amended. This move effectively killed it for the session despite Senator Lois Kolkhorst’s attempts to restore the previously agreed to language by both property rights groups and pipeline companies in a conference committee. SB 421 would have given landowners basic protections from eminent domain abuse, like defined minimum easement terms, a public hearing requirement, and protection from low-ball offers.
While SB 572 (Kolkhorst) is good news for micro home foods businesses, granting small cottage food vendors (home-based food businesses) more freedom to sell their products without onerous governmental red tape, HB 2755 (Price) would impose unlimited permit fees on food trucks by local governments.
In all, there’s very little to write home about for the 86th legislative session when it comes to relieving the toll tax burden, toll collection abuses, and protecting property rights. Now it’s time to hold the state’s leadership, their committee chairs, and every member of the legislature who failed to act accountable. Election season is just around the corner. Ask yourself, who’s interest did your Texas legislators and leaders represent? Yours, the lowly taxpayer, or the special interests — or even worse, their own self-interest. Time to send the majority of them packing.