Bills focus on funding, taxes

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Transportation: Pay As You Go
Transportation bills focus on funding and taxes
By Michael King
Fri., Jan. 9, 2015
Austin Chronicle

If there's an incipient theme in the transportation-related bills filed thus far, it's roughly "Show Me the Money." There are several bills, including joint resolutions aimed at eventual constitutional amendments, that would re-allocate various taxes and/or fees related to transportation, mostly attempting to confine all such funding to direct highway construction. That's the thrust of HJR 28 and 29 (Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso) as well as HJR 36 (Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio), although each has different emphases; curiously, both are drafted as temporary, two-year amendments to the infinitely flexible Texas Constitution.

A similar trend includes various attempts to make certain all transportation money is dedicated to highways – and highways only. One strategy is to require a public referendum for any attempt to create and manage a "fixed rail system" (HB 527, Larson); such high democratic standards seldom seem to apply to major highway construction. Other bills would redirect all gas tax revenue to road construction, and away from the permanent school fund or anything else not highway related (SB 61, Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas; HB 129, Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth). With new funding headed to transportation following the passage of November's Prop. 1 (Rainy Day Funds for transportation), there will certainly be persistent efforts to define "transportation" to mean exclusively "poured concrete." And Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would attempt (SB 119) to make transit system management more difficult by requiring that agency boards be elected, not appointed.

There are also a few (likely quixotic) attempts to actually pay for highway construction, e.g., Dallas Dem Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon's HB 395 would increase the gas tax from 20 cents to 30 cents a gallon, and bump up related highway fees for heavy vehicles; a few other legislators have stuck their toes in that treacherous water.

A few transportation bills are more narrowly targeted: HB 64 (Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville) would ban texting while driving, and require testing on the subject on drivers' exams; HB 141 (Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio) would follow Austin's example of mandating hands-free devices while driving only. (Gov. Rick Perry vetoed no-texting legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. Tom Craddick; Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has indicated he would do the same.)

Finally, Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, known primarily for his profound enthusiasm for pro-gun legislation, doesn't care for those scofflaw-inhibiting red-light cameras; his HB 142 would ban the technology, offering up additional Texas highway deaths on the altar of Freedom to Speed.