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With Time Running Short, Lawmakers Scramble on Road Plan

With less than a week left in the current special session and lawmakers anxious to go home, negotiators reached an impasse over transportation funding, prompting the governor to threaten to call a third session if more time is needed.

Gov. Rick Perry at the Capitol in May 2013.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

With less than a week left in the current special session and Gov. Rick Perry threatening to call them back for another one, the Texas House and Senate are set to meet this afternoon with lawmakers hoping to hash out a transportation funding compromise.

Legislators hope to have something to vote on this afternoon, but as of Wednesday evening, negotiators from the two chambers remained far apart.  

The governor and House and Senate negotiators began openly talking about a possible third special session late Wednesday.

Negotiators from the House and Senate remain at odds over the best approach to boost funding for the cash-strapped Texas Department of Transportation by nearly $1 billion annually.

That remains the only unresolved issue on the agenda Perry set for the current second special session, which must end by next Tuesday. The governor made clear Wednesday afternoon that he would call a third special session if lawmakers couldn’t reach a compromise.

“A bill that secures long-term funding for transportation projects in this state is too important to the vitality of the Texas economy, and the governor will absolutely call them back to get the job done,” spokesman Josh Havens said.

Both chambers have passed measures that would ask voters to approve diverting billions of dollars in future oil and gas production tax revenue earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to highway construction and maintenance.

Such a constitutional amendment requires support of two-thirds from both chambers. The Senate plan appears to be short of the requisite support in the House and vice versa, according to lawmakers involved in the negotiations.

“We’ve got two different philosophical approaches to this and I don’t know if we can get there,” said state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, one of five senators appointed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to negotiate with the House on the issue.

The Senate plan would divert half the revenue currently flowing to the Rainy Day Fund to the state highway fund. It also includes a “floor” provision, which would halt the diversion whenever the balance of that fund dips below $6 billion, starting it again only when the balance exceeds that level. Several Republican senators appear unwilling to support the measure without the provision.

The House plan is more complicated, an aspect that some have argued will make it more difficult to sell to voters. Along with boosting funding for TxDOT, the House plan would end the long-standing diversion of a nickel of the state’s 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax to the state’s public schools. Revenue from that nickel would go to highways, and tax revenue diverted from the Rainy Day Fund would be used to prevent public schools from losing any state funding.

The House plan does not include a “floor” provision related to the Rainy Day Fund. House Democrats have been especially critical of the concept and could unilaterally block such a measure from reaching the needed 100 votes if all 55 of them remained united.

“The sentiment of the members I’ve talked to is the Rainy Day Fund is already difficult enough to access,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. “If this becomes a showdown between the Senate and the House, I put my money on the House, respectfully.”

Supporters of the House plan have argued that ending the gas sales tax diversion will make it easier to find a more sustainable solution for TxDOT's budget woes in the 2015 session. The agency has said it needs about $4 billion in extra funding each year to maintain current congestion levels. Neither the House nor the Senate plan is expected to raise more than $1 billion a year, and lawmakers intend to try to close that gap when they return in 2015 for their next regular session. 

Both chambers are scheduled to convene at 2 p.m. Lawmakers were already talking Wednesday about the mechanics of a third special session. Some Senators were hopeful that Perry would not call them back right away.

“If this thing does fall apart, a cooling-off period might be helpful,” Eltife said.

Jody Serrano contributed to this report.

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Transportation Rainy Day Fund Special sessions Texas Department Of Transportation