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Agenda Texas: The Politics of Transportation Funding

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: Lawmakers want to spend billions to repair the state's crumbling roads, but that's putting some Republican leaders in a bind.

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When you hear pretty much any speech by Gov. Rick Perry, you’re almost guaranteed to hear about economic prosperity in Texas: the thousands of people moving here each day, the hundreds of companies leaving some other state to set down low-tax, low-regulation roots in Texas.

“Texas is blessed with an abundance of interest and an abundance of people," Perry said in a speech last week in Austin.

But this time around, he also added a line about the problems popularity can bring.

"The results of those blessings can be found jammed into our highways during rush hour.”

The traffic jam: It’s as Texas as cattle, football and Willie Nelson. But unlike the Red Headed Stranger, we often have to wait to get on the road again, because odds are you’ll quickly get stuck in traffic. 

So lawmakers are trying to figure out how to build new roads. But there’s a problem: money.

“We say we have a $4 billion shortfall for budget for transportation. I believe it’s closer to $7 to $9 billion to do what we really need to do to be successful," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Phillips, R-Sherman.

To help fill that hole, Phillips has filed a bill this session that would dedicate future motor vehicle sales taxes to road construction. Right now that money is sent straight to the state’s general fund, where it can be gobbled up by any state agency.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has the same bill in the Senate. Both phase in the shift to roads to soften the blow of removing $3 billion from other agencies.

“The way I described it, in a 10-year period it’s $13 billion, so $13 billion of new congestion-relieving projects could be on their way under development," Nichols said.

But that’s just one idea. Late last week, a constitutional amendment was proposed that would draw $3.5 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to set up an account that would dole out grants to leverage public and private money to get roads built.

Even Perry is calling for using Rainy Day Fund money to jump-start the state’s plan to catch up on roads. But not all of Perry’s supporters like the idea.

“After this session is over, will Texas be stronger, or will we be on a glide path to Washington, D.C.?" Texas Tea Party Caucus advisory committee chairwoman JoAnn Fleming said at the Capitol this week.

She and several other Tea Party activists came to Austin on Monday to let Republicans know that any tax increase or use of the Rainy Day Fund to pay for roads is unacceptable. That included Tea Parties of Texas President Bob Hall.

“Our No. 1 priority is to weed out those legislators who continuously come to Austin and want to raise taxes, increase government spending, increase government size and reduce the personal liberties and hamper the economic growth of Texas," Hall said.

So far that saber-rattling hasn’t shaken the state’s Republican leadership. Perry and others definitely want to keep their Tea Party supporters happy. But it’s also important to remember Perry has built his reputation on making Texas the top destination for businesses in the U.S.

“It’s also very important to remember that a big part of convincing employers to come to Texas is convincing them that we’re going to have adequate electricity, we’re going to have adequate water and transportation infrastructure to fit their needs," Perry said.

The proposed constitutional amendment to spend Rainy Day Fund money on roads could come up for a vote in the Senate this week. The motor vehicle sales tax diversion bills are still in House and Senate committees.

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Transportation Budget Larry Phillips Rainy Day Fund Rick Perry Robert Nichols