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Third Time's the Charm for Road Funding Plan?

The second special session starting Monday gives transportation advocates a third chance to find some extra money for road construction and maintenance.

TribLive with State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville and State Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman - April 4, 2013.

The bid to find the Texas Department of Transportation a quarter of the extra money it says it needs to keep traffic from getting worse got a second reprieve this week.

Gov. Rick Perry added road funding to the call of a second special session, after Senate Joint Resolution 2 died quietly on Tuesday. If the measure from Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, had received a final vote in the Senate, it would have almost certainly drawn enough support to pass. The bill, and a criminal justice measure from Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, ended up as hostages in the dramatic fight between Republicans and Democrats over abortion legislation.

Compared to the intense furor over abortion regulations, and the inertia toward all TxDOT funding proposals during the regular session, the speed with which Nichols and House Transportation Chairman Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, managed to draw the needed support for Senate Joint Resolution 2 in the first special session is striking.

Texas lawmakers proved this year to be unwilling to raise taxes or fees or issue more debt to increase funding for TxDOT. SJR 2 is estimated to raise nearly $1 billion a year without touching any of those fault lines by taking advantage of the state’s oil and gas exploration boom. Currently, a portion of energy production taxes is earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund. Nichols’ plan asks voters to amend the Constitution to divert half of that revenue to Fund 6, also known as the Highway Fund.

But a second special session means new hearings on the measure and some earlier critiques could gain more adherents.

For starters, the way SJR 2 impacts the Rainy Day Fund has raised concern. In the version that nearly passed this week, severance tax revenue would only be diverted from the Rainy Day Fund for roads in years when the fund has a balance of at least one-third of its legislative cap, a figure that varies over time. Some worry that the language will create a perception that the Rainy Day Fund needs to be maintained at a specific level.

“It’s not a floor on the fund,” Nichols said. “It’s a trigger for when the revenue is diverted. There is not a floor on the Rainy Day Fund.”

Another sticking point: SJR 2 falls far short of the $4 billion in additional annual funding TxDOT leaders have said the agency needs just to maintain current levels of traffic congestion.

While Nichols and other supporters argue SJR 2 is still a “good start” to addressing the problem, critics have noted that lawmakers and advocates will have to convince voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution in November. A campaign for the bill could give voters backing the measure the impression that they had just “fixed” the state’s road funding problem. Such a mentality might make rallying support for new road funding proposals in the 2015 session even tougher.

“I almost believe a crisis in transportation would force us to a better solution,” Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said earlier this week. He still planned to vote for SJR 2 — had it come up for a vote.

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