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Senators Hope to Revive Plan to Fund Roads

A plan to fund Texas highway construction by diverting half of the money that currently feeds the state's Rainy Day Fund could find new life in a special session.

TribLive at the Austin Club featuring State Rep. Jim Pitts and Sen. Tommy Williams  on financial issues facing the 83rd Texas Legislature.

Two senators are hoping the special session that kicked off Monday evening will be an opportunity to create a serious fix for the state’s transportation funding shortfall.

Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, have filed a resolution that would ask voters to approve diverting some of the revenue that traditionally goes to the state’s savings account into the state’s highway fund.

“We’ve talked to Perry’s office about it,” Williams said. “They like it. I think they’ll be very supportive of it.”

Last week, days before the end of the regular session, Williams proposed the same plan to House budget leaders, who were not receptive to considering it so late in the session.

Williams is now hopeful that Perry will add the issue to a special session agenda that so far only covers redistricting issues. At a news conference Tuesday, Perry did not rule out adding other issues to the special session agenda.

"Unlike water for the last decade, we have addressed transportation, so there’s been some important movement in the transportation side," Perry said. "Is it enough, from my perspective? No, but, again, I think it’s a little bit premature, with less than 24 hours since we’ve called this special, to be addressing whether we’re going to be adding anything to the call or not.”

The Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs $4 billion in extra revenue this session just to maintain current congestion. During the regular session, it received $400 million in extra funding to the state's highway fund for the next two-year budget cycle.

The state’s Rainy Day Fund is currently drawing billions of dollars a year from oil and gas production taxes. Under Senate Joint Resolution 2, filed by Nichols and Williams, half of the fund’s future revenue would go to address road construction and maintenance around the state. Williams estimated that the plan would raise nearly $1 billion of extra revenue for TxDOT annually.

“I think it’s a fairly reliable and robust way to fund our highways,” Williams said. “It does it in a financially responsible way and wouldn’t have a detrimental effect on the budget.”

Republican critics are sure to question whether the plan jeopardizes the state’s financial stability. Throughout the regular session, Perry and Republicans in the House expressed concern about drawing too much from the Rainy Day Fund, which was projected to grow to nearly $12 billion by 2015 if lawmakers had left it alone. They ultimately approved measures spending $3.9 billion from the fund, leaving about $8 billion under current projections. Under Williams and Nichols’ plan, the fund's projected balance falls to $7 billion in 2015, Williams said.

“There is no magic number you have to have in there,” Williams said. “Six to $7 billion. I’m good with that.”

Lawmakers have re-filed several bills that failed during the regular session in case Perry expands the special session’s agenda to include those issues. State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed a bill that would require drug testing for Texas welfare applicants. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, hopes the special session serves as a second chance for a measure to issue tuition revenue bonds to fund construction projects at colleges around the state. And state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, filed a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks gestation.

State Reps. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, filed bills related to exempting Texas from some federal gun laws.

Along with his transportation funding proposal with Nichols, Williams also filed measures to create a "school choice" program for students with disabilities and to tighten the state’s spending limit.

Ross Ramsey, Emily Ramshaw and Jay Root contributed to this report.

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Economy State government Transportation 83rd Legislative Session Budget Governor's Office Rainy Day Fund Robert Nichols Texas Legislature