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House and Senate Hoping to Quickly Find Money for Roads

With transportation funding added to the special session call, lawmakers are already planning hearings and considering different proposals. The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday.

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Less than a day after Gov. Rick Perry added transportation funding to the special session agenda, lawmakers are quickly moving forward to try and tackle the politically tricky issue.

While Perry said he would only add charges to the 30-day session in which he could be “relatively assured” of success, a politically viable funding solution for the Texas Department of Transportation remains, at least for the moment, unresolved.

On Tuesday, Perry expanded the special session agenda further, adding legislation related to the regulation of abortion procedures, providers and facilities, as well as legislation relating to sentences for capital felonies committed by a 17-year-old offender.

In the abridged debate on transportation funding, the next week is emerging as pivotal. On Wednesday, Senators will hold a hearing on a leading funding proposal. On Monday, House Speaker Joe Straus is expected to convene the House and pave the way for hearings on one or more transportation bills by referring them to committees.

“I think the only thing the speaker needs to do between now and Monday is consider what bills he wants to be considered and where they might go,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. “It could be on the [House] floor by next Wednesday if we can get them moving.”

Pickett and other legislators filed about 20 transportation-related bills in the special session with the hope that Perry would add the issue to the agenda. The Texas Department of Transportation told lawmakers earlier this year that it needed $4 billion in extra annual funding just to maintain current congestion. The agency only received an additional $400 million toward the problem for the next two-year budget cycle, 5 percent of its request.

Every substantial funding proposal considered during the session hit a roadblock. Both the House and Perry expressed opposition to any fee increases. Perry’s idea of taking advantage of historically low interest rates and borrowing more money for the agency drew stiff resistance from fellow Republicans. Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, was critical of a plan to dedicate a portion of the sales tax revenue already collected on vehicle purchases to the highway fund.

Among the funding proposals now drawing strong interest is one from Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, that would take advantage of the ongoing drilling boom. Nichols wants to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes that traditionally fill the coffers of the Rainy Day Fund to the state’s highway fund. Williams has said the plan would raise nearly $1 billion a year for road construction. He and Nichols pitched the idea in the last days of this year’s regular session, but Straus declined to consider it.

Soon after the special session got underway, Nichols filed Senate Joint Resolution 2 in the hope that the idea could get a fuller airing. On Tuesday, Williams scheduled a Wednesday hearing on the legislation.

Lawmakers in the House have offered some variations on Nichols’ idea. Instead of directly pumping up the highway fund, House Joint Resolution 16 from Pickett would send some of the revenue currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to public education. That extra funding would allow lawmakers to undo a long-standing diversion of the state’s 20-cent gas tax, of which a nickel currently goes to schools, Pickett said. The measure has the backing of the House’s lead budget writer, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has signed on as a co-author.

Pickett's proposal could draw support from some House Republicans who had opposed additional funding for TxDOT during the regular session in part because the measures didn't end the gas tax diversion. Yet those same lawmakers may be wary of any proposal that reduces the funding stream to the Rainy Day Fund, widely regarded as the state's savings account.

For either Nichols’ or Pickett’s proposals to pass, supporters will need to muster strong bipartisan support as both necessitate amending the state’s Constitution, a move that requires the backing of two-thirds of both chambers.

Williams’ spokesman, Gary Scharrer, said the senator is happy Perry gave lawmakers another chance to take on TxDOT’s financial woes, as it wasn’t properly addressed in the regular session.

“He’s simply grateful for the opportunity to open the discussion because Texas faces a transportation fiscal cliff unless we find robust new funding sources,” Scharrer said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date of an upcoming Senate Finance Committee hearing. 

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