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Bill to Increase Vehicle Registration Fee Dies in House

A bill that would have increased vehicle registration fees to generate money for transportation projects met its demise in the Texas House on Thursday.

By Reeve Hamilton, The Texas Tribune, and Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
Rep. Drew Darby discusses the upcoming 83rd Texas legislative session at The Texas Tribune Festival 2012.

A bill that would have increased vehicle registration fees to raise money for transportation projects met its demise in the Texas House on Thursday.

House Bill 3664, by state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, was designed to generate money to pay down the state's transportation-related debt and fund improvements on non-tolled roads across Texas.

After a spirited discussion, Darby postponed the bill until May 28 — one day after the session ends and lawmakers go home. He cited pressure from outside forces that made voting for the measure difficult for some legislators.

Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday he would call a special session if fees were increased for transportation.

"Send me a balanced budget that has no fee increases for transportation and $2 billion for infrastructure for water, and everyone can go home and enjoy their summer," he told reporters, explaining that he would call a special session if legislators don't approve $1.8 billion in tax relief.

"It sounds like Gov. Perry is serious. Do legislators think 'no' doesn’t mean 'no'?" wrote conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of the group Empower Texans, saying he considered the bill likely to prompt Perry to call a special session. "Time will tell. Lawmakers wanting to play budget-chicken ought to be prepared for a long, hot summer in Austin."

The bill highlighted divisions within the Legislature's Republican majority. While some disagreed with the revenue-raising approach to addressing transportation concerns, supporters of the bill said transportation funding needs were reaching a critical point.

"There’s no doubt that our transportation system is in dire crisis," said Transportation Committee Chairman state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, who amended Darby's bill to reduce the proposed fee increase from $30 to $15.

Phillips said the state was facing a $4 billion transportation funding shortfall, and he asserted that not addressing it was "a failure to lead."

"Are you going to be a leader or are you going to just follow?" Phillips shouted at his colleagues.

When state Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, noted the governor's objections to the bill, Darby shot back, contending that lawmakers were not there to "simply abdicate that responsibility to somebody outside this building who doesn’t answer to your constituents."

Lavender said he believed the governor does represent his constituents.

Darby and Phillips attempted to sway their colleagues by noting that the bill, as amended, would end diversions of transportation funds to pay other state bills and would reduce borrowing — two things many conservative lawmakers have said they oppose. Darby also warned that deteriorating transportation infrastructure would make it increasingly difficult for the state to attract and retain business.

But it wasn't enough.

"I feel a little bit like the skunk at the garden part right now," Darby said at one point in the debate.

As he moved to postpone the bill, Darby said he felt that, at the very least, the discussion had helped highlight the state's transportation funding needs. 

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