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House Panel Backs New Transportation Funding Plan

A House committee on Thursday held its first hearing in the third special session, and it voted out a transportation funding plan with minor changes from one that failed in the previous special session.

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After consulting with members from both the House and Senate, state Rep. Joe Pickett decided to make some minor changes to his latest transportation funding proposal. On Thursday — the third day of the third special session — a House committee gave his altered proposal its endorsement.

Pickett added a provision to the plan that would require the Texas Department of Transportation to find $100 million in “efficiencies” over the 2014-15 biennium and put that money toward paying the agency’s multibillion-dollar debt. Paying off that much debt early would save the agency $47 million in debt service payments, Pickett said.

“I wanted a buy-in by the agency,” Pickett said. “I wouldn’t propose it if I didn’t think they were up to the challenge.”

In a 6-1 vote, the House Select Committee on Transportation Funding approved House Joint Resolution 1, with state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, voting no. The committee voted unanimously in favor of the related House Bill 1

The House is expected to try to pass the plan again early next week. Because it involves amending the Constitution, HJR 1 needs support from 100 members of the 150-member House. A similar plan failed 84-40 on Monday, a day before the end of the second special session. Pickett and others said they believe the measure failed because 23 members were absent that day, not because there aren’t 100 members of the House who support the plan. A version of the legislation also failed in the first special session.

If the updated versions of HJR 1 and HB 1 are approved by both chambers, Texas voters would still be asked in 2014 to approve amending the state Constitution to divert half of the oil and gas production tax revenue earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to the state’s highway fund. 

That revenue has grown more than expected. Comptroller Susan Combs informed lawmakers Thursday that the state's oil and gas production taxes were likely to come in $900 million higher than previously projected for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 31.

Three-quarters of that, $675 million, will be deposited in the Rainy Day Fund. The remaining quarter will go into the state's general revenue fund, which has $683 million unspent from this year's legislative session. The committee considered, but did not vote on, a bill from state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, that would appropriate most of that leftover money to TxDOT.

The other key difference in Pickett's new proposal would be in the way the Legislature could ensure that the plan wouldn’t drain the Rainy Day Fund’s balance beyond a level with which state leaders are comfortable. A previous version required the Legislative Budget Board to periodically set a minimum balance, or floor, for the Rainy Day Fund below which tax revenue could not be diverted to transportation. Pickett switched out the LBB with a select joint committee of five House members and five senators.

Also, at the start of each legislative session, lawmakers would have the opportunity to file bills proposing that the floor selected by the committee be adjusted, Pickett said. Such a bill would need to pass both chambers within the first 60 days of the session to be enacted.  

If Pickett's measure is approved by the Legislature and voters, it is expected to raise nearly $1 billion a year for TxDOT. TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson told the committee Thursday that the agency needs $4 billion a year in additional funding to maintain current congestion. That figure does not factor in an extra $1 billion a year the agency needs to repair state roads in South and West Texas that have been "decimated" by an oil and gas drilling boom, he said.

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