Vol 29, Issue 41 Print Issue

Defining the Transportation Debate

A debate over transportation funding is speeding toward the next legislative session and the outcome may hinge on whether lawmakers can agree on the definitions of some key words and phrases.

For starters, what exactly is a budget diversion?

Both Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus are calling for an end to the Legislature’s long-standing practice of taking money collected for one purpose and diverting it to another pot.

Perry spent most of a press conference in Irving earlier this month honing in on Fund 6, the state’s highway fund, arguing that it has “been tapped for entirely different purposes and that has to stop. First, because it’s not a transparent and honest accounting of our financial situation. And secondly, because we need to build roads.”

It riles many that a chunk of the tax Texans pay when they buy gasoline doesn’t help build or maintain Texas roads. But does all of that non-road spending qualify as a diversion?

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, says perception is a big problem with the conversation. When the public thinks “diversions,” they think of accounting gimmicks that can be simply undone by lawmakers with the courage to make it so in the next budget, he says. But the biggest diversion is written in the Texas Constitution. A nickel out of the 20 cents state gas tax is required to go to public education.

Pickett is among the lawmakers who want to see the full 20 cents go to transportation. Is it a diversion if Texans voted to take the nickel in perpetuity? Even if all agree it is, convincing voters to return to the polls and unwind that commitment would be a tough sell.

More than $500 million of the gas tax also gets transferred each year to the Department of Public Safety, which is in charge of policing public roadways. State lawmakers aren’t in agreement that the DPS funding counts as a diversion. State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, has called it a diversion for years. House Transportation Committee Chair Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, has said he doesn't see it as one.

“We as leaders have to communicate to the Legislature exactly what we’re looking at so we can get past the diversion issue and get to the next step and identify opportunities,” Phillips said at last month’s Texas Tribune Festival.

The other word with an eye-of-the-beholder interpretation: tax. The Texas Association of Business and a few lawmakers see potential in a $50 hike in the vehicle registration fee as a way to raise more revenue for roads. While some argue it’s the most palatable option available to the Legislature, Tea Party-friendly lawmakers may view fee as a synonym for another three-letter word.

At a TAB forum in Austin this month, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, touched on a problem that most transportation revenue options are going to face next year: getting everyone reading from the same dictionary.

“You can call a fee a fee but it’s still going to be perceived by some as a tax,” she said.