The effort to avert gridlock on Texas roads has brought gridlock to the Texas Capitol.
Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to bring the Legislature back for a third special session represents the fourth try this year by lawmakers to find extra funding for the Texas Department of Transportation. With the state’s leadership divided on a way forward after the failure of multiple proposals, a small group of legislators is continuing the summer-long search for a workable compromise. A newly created House Select Committee on Transportation Funding will meet for the first time Thursday to consider proposals for the new special session.
“We’re all pretty exhausted and intellectually fatigued,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, who has long worked on transportation issues in the House. “I’m frustrated because we’ve been given marching orders and rules that prevent us from actually fixing the problem.”
Both the House and Senate briefly gaveled in Tuesday afternoon to kick off the third special session before adjourning for six days. In the meantime, lawmakers are looking into the chances of passing a transportation funding measure similar to ones that already failed in the two previous special sessions, the first time in the Senate and earlier this week in the House.
All of the variations of the plan involve taking advantage of the current oil drilling boom to raise close to $1 billion a year for highway maintenance and construction. The Texas Constitution currently allocates some oil and gas production tax revenue to the Rainy Day Fund, widely viewed as the state’s savings account. Lawmakers have tried repeatedly to find the needed two-thirds support in both chambers to pass a measure that would ask Texas voters to amend the Constitution to divert half of those taxes to the state highway fund.
In the first special session, the plan passed the House and appeared to have the votes to pass the Senate. On the final day of the special session, the bill never came up for a vote. Over the objections of some senators, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst chose to first bring up a controversial abortion bill, which was filibustered for 11 hours by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and then blocked by shouting activists.
Dewhurst said Tuesday that “a mob that took over the chamber” effectively killed the transportation bill.
“I take full responsibility for not foreseeing the effect of the International Socialist Movement organizers, different groups that simply overwhelmed our security,” Dewhurst said.
Democrats have countered that Dewhurst prioritized a restrictive abortion bill over the state's pressing transportation needs.
In the second special session, the House's interest in the measure waned as Democrats in particular grew critical of language in the plan to block the diversion of revenue from the Rainy Day Fund if that fund’s balance fell below a certain level. A compromise solution reached by negotiators from both chambers would have required the Republican-dominated Legislative Budget Board to periodically set a so-called floor for the fund, after which the diversions would be blocked. Some Democrats described the policy as another obstacle to tapping the Rainy Day Fund. Republicans complained that the “floor” language was being written into state law rather than into the Constitution, where it would be harder to repeal.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the bill’s author, and Darby have both pointed to the 23 House members who were absent on Monday as reason for hope that the measure could pass if given another chance.
If approved, the plan to divert revenue from the Rainy Day Fund would address just a fraction of the $4 billion in additional annual funding that TxDOT officials have said the agency needs to maintain current congestion. Agency officials have also said road damage from energy sector development will cost at least $1 billion extra a year to address. During the regular legislative session that ended in May, Perry made clear he would not support any transportation fee or tax increases. Lawmakers found the agency $200 million a year for its overall roadwork and a one-time $500 million infusion for energy development-related issues.
Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus appeared at odds this week over Perry’s decision to call lawmakers back immediately for a third special session.
Straus described the leading plan “as a Band-Aid over a pothole” and said lawmakers would be better served taking some time to develop a “long-term, responsible plan.” Dewhurst countered that a plan that generates nearly $2 billion more for TxDOT each biennium would have “a meaningful impact.”
With no long-term funding fix in sight, TxDOT has taken on some drastic measures in recent meetings. The agency has confirmed that it will convert a small number of asphalt roads to gravel and has announced it may pursue a new kind of public-private partnership in which TxDOT would use public funds to reimburse a private entity if needed to ensure it makes a profit on a project
“We have a lot of needs, of both maintaining existing system but also future expansion … and the needs are justified,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin said at a meeting last week. “We hope they’ll come to some conclusion or resolution to provide some additional funding that we so desperately need.”