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Van de Putte: Use Transportation Money for Transporation

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, pledged on Wednesday to stop using money intended for transportation for other programs.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
A damaged portion of the IH 37 frontage road, south of  FM 99 in Live Oak County, Texas on Friday, August 16, 2013. The road is on a list of roads that the Texas Department of Transportation has announced will be converted to gravel because the agency lacks funds to keep them maintained at a safe level.

*Correction appended

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, pledged on Wednesday to stop using state transportation money for other programs — except for public education. She also signaled that the state's 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax may be too low, though she stopped short of proposing to raise it. 

"For too long, the Legislature has failed to invest in our transportation infrastructure, leaving our state with no option but to pay for projects by taking on debt," Van de Putte wrote in a policy plan on roads and bridges, unveiled Wednesday alongside a proposal on water infrastructure that includes calls for clearer regulation of brackish groundwater. 

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, Van de Putte's Republican opponent, did not respond to requests for comment. In past public appearances, Patrick has said he wants to end diversions from the highway fund. 

Hundreds of millions of dollars per year are diverted from the State Highway Fund into non-transportation programs by the Legislature. A large chunk of that money goes to the Department of Public Safety, while a quarter of the state gas tax is constitutionally dedicated to public education. The diversions have long been criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. 

Van de Putte said she would end budget diversions over the next six years, but did not specify how she would make up for the resulting shortfall in agencies like DPS. Her campaign did not respond to questions on that point. 

Last session, the Legislature tried and failed to reduce diversions of transportation funding and to fill resulting gaps using oil and gas tax revenue that otherwise goes into the state's Rainy Day Fund. Patrick voted against those measures, arguing that lawmakers also needed to establish a "floor" for the Rainy Day Fund if they were going to keep removing money from it. He later voted against a bill the Legislature passed that called for asking Texans whether they would allow use of the Rainy Day Fund for future transportation projects; that constitutional amendment is on the November ballot.

Van de Putte, who also supported the use of Rainy Day money for transportation, noted that it would not be enough; state officials have said they are $5 billion short of what they need to maintain roads in the state today. "The gasoline tax has not been updated since 1991," Van de Putte noted, though she stopped short of making specific policy proposals related to the tax. A spokesman said later she is not proposing a higher gasoline tax. 

Voters last year approved using $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to provide loans for water infrastructure projects. Van de Putte said she would ask two Senate committees — Natural Resources and Finance — to oversee that and to report to the Legislature on its progress. (There is also an advisory committee of members of the state House of Representatives, created by lawmakers last summer, that is monitoring the funds.) Both Van de Putte and Patrick supported using the water measure. 

Van de Putte also noted that while the loan program is a "step in the right direction," water planners estimate that Texas' total needs for water infrastructure exceed $50 billion. The Texas Water Development Board, which will administer the $2 billion, has pointed out that money from a "revolving" fund like this one can be lent out multiple times as loans are paid back. 

Also in the water plan were commitments to "educate our communities of the importance of conserving water" and to "remove the barriers that prohibit water supply entities from finding solutions to community water challenges." That second item is a reference to challenges that Wichita Falls had when seeking approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for an emergency waterwater reuse project. Bureaucratic hurdles delayed the needed project for months, according to city officials.

Van de Putte said that the "ambiguity" of groundwater law, especially when it comes to brackish groundwater, will have to be addressed by the Legislature next year so that brackish water can be used instead of drinking water when that's appropriate.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Patrick voted for SJR 1 last summer, which called for asking Texans whether they would allow use of the Rainy Day Fund for future transportation projects.

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