A months-long effort to pass a controversial measure to boost transportation funding fell 16 votes short in the Texas House on Monday, dooming its chances in the current special session and setting the stage for Gov. Rick Perry to make good on a threat to call a third one.
Tempers flared in both chambers Monday during debate on the two pieces of legislation, House Joint Resolution 2 and House Bill 16, that implemented a plan to raise about $900 million a year for the Texas Department of Transportation.
“This is the biggest vote you’ll ever make probably in your legislative career at one time to support transportation,” House Transportation Chairman Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, told his colleagues.
After the House voted 84-40 on HJR 2, falling short of the 100 votes it needed to be sent to voters, the measure’s lead author, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, conveyed a request to Perry that many weary lawmakers said they hope he follows.
“To the governor: If you’re listening, don’t bring us back tomorrow,” Pickett said. He suggested next spring, after the Republican and Democratic primaries, would be more productive.
An hour later, House Speaker Joe Straus echoed Pickett in a statement, arguing that opposition to the current plan was too broad.
“Legislators know that Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that,” Straus said.
Perry released a statement criticizing those House members who voted against the measure but providing no comment on the prospects of a third special session.
“This was an opportunity to utilize hundreds of millions of dollars in existing revenue to move forward on numerous projects across our state and begin dealing with the effects of our economic growth, and just as importantly, provide much-needed relief to working Texans everywhere who spend hours in traffic every day,” Perry said. “Legislators have been in Austin for nearly seven months now, and to go home without dealing with one of the most pressing issues facing all Texans is simply unacceptable.”
If the compromise plan before lawmakers on Monday had passed, Texas voters in 2014 would have been asked to approve a constitutional amendment to divert half of the oil and gas production tax revenue currently earmarked for the state’s Rainy Day Fund toward road construction and maintenance.
But both Democrats and Republicans found fault with the compromise language hashed out by House and Senate negotiators over the weekend regarding a so-called floor on the Rainy Day Fund. Some Republicans had pushed for a provision that would have blocked the diversion of tax revenue to the state highway fund if the Rainy Day Fund’s balance fell below a certain level. Many Democrats argued that would put a new, tighter restraint on tapping the fund to address the state’s needs.
Under the plan presented to both chambers Monday, the 10-member Legislative Budget Board would periodically set the minimum balance after which the diversions would be blocked.
“I would hate to see us pass bad legislation when we can do better than this,” said state Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana.
Pickett repeatedly described the minimum balance on the fund that would have been set by the LBB as a “trigger” and a “recommendation.” He stressed that the plan would not jeopardize the billions of dollars currently in the Rainy Day Fund.
State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, argued that the LBB’s action would be widely viewed as a “floor” on the fund and that lawmakers would have a tough time getting around it. She noted that the spending cap the LBB sets prior to each session could also be called a “recommendation” but isn’t viewed that way by lawmakers working on the next two-year budget.
“It’s not a recommendation,” Dukes said. “It’s what we work with.”
Many lawmakers were also unimpressed with the plan because it raised less than a quarter of the amount in additional annual funding TxDOT has said it needs to maintain current congestion. Some were also worried it would fail at the ballot box.
The House did pass a compromise version of HB 16 69-55. While most of it is unenforceable with out the passage of HJR 2, Pickett said the provision creating a standing committee to study the state’s transportation funding system could still move forward if Perry signs the bill.
The Senate also passed HB 16 but had not acted on HJR 2 as of Monday evening. HB 16 passed in that chamber with a 19-4 vote, with all four no votes coming from Republicans.
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who also voted against HB 16, said Republicans had "caved" by removing a Rainy Day Fund floor from the compromise.
"We have yielded to the other party," he said.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — who is slated to face Patrick in 2014's Republican primary for lieutenant governor — called Patrick's remark "inflammatory."
State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said she did not think the legislation was perfect but asked legislators to not "let perfect be the enemy of good."
"If we don’t fund transportation, our economy — our great economy of the state of Texas — will be impeded," she said.
The Senate will reconvene at 2 p.m. Tuesday to vote on HJR 2, Dewhurst said. As of Monday evening, the Senate was still 1 vote short of the 21 needed to pass the resolution, he said.
"I have no idea what the House is going to do," Dewhurst said. "All we can do is what we are going to do."
Dewhurst said he expects the Senate to have a supermajority by Tuesday, adding that it is short right now because some senators are still traveling.
The House is also scheduled to convene Tuesday at 2 p.m., though many House members spoke openly Monday evening about not planning to attend. Pickett made clear he was not going to try a last-ditch attempt at passing the bill by setting up a vote to "reconsider" the measure.
"We're done. That's it," Pickett said. "I wouldn't even try to put my colleagues through that."