Taxpayers finally caught a break in Texas, especially toll-weary commuters. After fighting for common sense toll road reforms for over a decade, the grassroots through Texas TURF and Texans for Toll-free Highways made major strides in killing public private partnership (P3) toll roads and gaining ground on several key anti-toll reforms, like removing tolls from roads that are paid for like Camino Columbia in Laredo.
State agencies come under sunset periodic review. Senate Bill 312 involves the continuation and functions of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and gives lawmakers the ability to tack on just about any transportation bill to it — good and bad. It's also must-pass legislation or the highway department goes away. While five anti-toll bills successfully passed the Texas Senate this session, none have been heard in the House. So lawmakers pounced on the opportunity to get stalled bills moving through amendments to SB 312.
The pro-toll crowd sought to resurrect corporate toll roads by authorizing P3s once again and even granting broader authority to do so. Lawmakers just voted down a P3 bill HB 2861 by Rep. Larry Phillips just days before, forcing taxpayers to mount an offensive to kill such sweetheart deals again. An amendment by Rep. Dade Phelan was most troubling actually requiring taxpayers to guarantee the loans and bonds of the private toll companies and gave authority to enter into multiple contracts every year with no sunset date.
His and two other P3 amendments also would have resulted in 52-year monopolies, allowing private toll operators to extract the highest possible toll from the traveling public like in Dallas-Ft. Worth where drivers face paying $30-$40/day to Spain-based Cintra just to get to work.
Taxpayers scored their biggest victory early on when Rep. Tony Tinderholt and Rep. Briscoe Cain went up to the dias to threaten to call a point of order on all three amendments pertaining to private toll contracts. Because they authorized local toll entities to enter into the contracts, they weren’t germane to the TxDOT sunset bill. Authors Rep. Mando Martinez, Rep. Eddie Lucio III, and Phelan were forced to withdraw their controversial amendments. Boom!
The first amendment was by Rep. Jonathan Stickland, who had an excused absence. Tinderholt laid out the amendment to move up TxDOT’s next sunset review date from 2029 to 2023. It failed, but since no one called for a record vote, there is no record of how House members voted.
Many Texans are angry that toll roads are getting built with public money, believing it’s double taxation — paying twice — once to build it and paying again to use it.
So amendment 12 by Rep. Joe Pickett sought to restrain some of the ‘double taxation’ by requiring toll companies to repay any money they receive from the state. It was almost identical to the language passed by the Senate in SB 812 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst. Pickett added another amendment to his amendment requiring the repaid funds to be used in the region where the tolls are collected. Amendment 12 was adopted by a vote of 73-65.
Amendment 16 by Rep. Matt Rinaldi requires the Texas Department of Transportation to contract only with companies who use E-Verify to make sure taxpayer dollars are not going to pay the wages of illegal immigrants. It was adopted 83-59.
Another issue that hits the nerve of Texans is the fear the toll will never come off the road when it’s paid for. A plank to remove the tolls when the debt is paid is in the 2016 GOP Platform to prevent what amounts to perpetual taxation. In fact, the Texas Constitution Article I, Section 26 prohibits such perpetuities.
However, amendment 32 by Rep. Matt Shaheen that would have removed tolls once the road is paid for failed 53-74, when Republicans hold a near super majority of seats in the House — 95 out of 150. In what some interpret as a partisan move, the amendments (#33 & #42) offered by two Democrats, Rep. Richard Raymond and Pickett, to remove the tolls from Camino Columbia in Laredo and the Border Highway in El Paso, respectively, were ultimately accepted with House author Rep. Larry Gonzales’ blessing and didn’t even require a vote. Shaheen is a member of the Freedom Caucus. Many moderate Republicans, those in leadership, along with Democrats are still fuming at conservative lawmakers known as the Freedom Caucus for killing nearly 200 bills on the Local and Consent calendar last week.
Amendment 36 offered by Cain would have prevented the conversion of free lanes, including HOV lanes, into toll lanes (another form of double taxation), but he was asked to withdraw his amendment in favor of Pickett's. Amendment 37 and 38 by Pickett did the same thing and were ultimately accepted by the author without requiring a vote. These amendments already passed the Senate as stand alone bills, SB 399 (Kolkhorst) and SB 1143 (Sen. Bob Hall).
Amendment 39 by Rep. Ina Minjarez makes great strides in reforming some of the problems of what Texans believe is a hopelessly broken toll collection system. Her amendment only applies to projects that received state funds, not necessarily independently operated toll projects by local toll entities, and it restricts the amount a motorist can be fined for being late on toll payments to $6 per notice, capping fines/fees at $48 a year. Most importantly, it decriminalizes toll violations, making threats of jail no longer allowed for failure to pay a fine/fee. It was overwhelmingly adopted by a vote of 136-3, despite Gonzales’ speaking in opposition to it.
Rep. James White, Rep. Tom Oliverson, and Freedom Caucus members Rinaldi and Tinderholt came to Minjarez’ aid. Tinderholt asked if it was right to put someone in jail for failure to pay a fee, and she answered, “No,” pointing out that the House had debated and passed many bills to prevent Texans from being jailed for inability to pay various fines and fees, like the repeal of the Driver Responsibility Program, and that toll collection was no different. Rinaldi and Oliverson both shared personal experiences where exorbitant fines were tacked onto their toll bills, and Oliverson was put into collections.
Rinaldi asked, “Do you know anybody else that can legally charge 2,400% interest?
Minjarez was happy to answer, ‘No.’
These compelling stories, shared by thousands of Texans who face similar fates, helped Minjarez cross the finish line, giving toll collections a pounding. Minjarez, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, carried this as a bill to protect Texans from such punitive fines/fees and debtors prison scenarios, but House Transportation Committee Chair Geanie Morrison refused to give it a hearing.
Near the end of the floor debate on SB 312, Martinez made a motion to reconsider Pickett’s amendment 12 saying his local Regional Mobility Authority (toll authority) couldn’t repay the state funds for its proposed toll projects, so he tried to deny every Texan protection from double taxation and the requirement that state funds be repaid for toll projects. The vote on Martinez’ motion was voted down by an even wider margin than what Pickett garnered on the first record vote (73-65), by a more convincing vote of 87-36.
Now the House and Senate conference committees battle it out over which amendments stay and which ones go. It’s likely to happen right up against the deadline of when the legislature gavels out for the session sine die on Monday, May 29. Texas toll policy promises to be a nail biter to the bitter end.