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Analysis: Lawmakers Contradict Themselves on Debt and Domain

Lawmakers try to do what voters want, but nobody promised consistency. That's why you can get the same legislators to reduce debt and increase it on the same day, or to argue for and against eminent domain in the same hearing.

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In the latest example of the Texas Legislature running in two directions at the same time, lawmakers are talking about reducing state debt on roads, while borrowing more money to pay for facilities at colleges and universities.

This happens more often than you think.

It’s possible to have no objection to big oil pipelines that crisscross the state while also opposing high-speed train lines as property rights abominations.

It’s even possible to be in favor of eminent domain for one kind of train and not for another.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, is carrying legislation (Senate Bill 1601) that would block eminent domain for a proposed high-speed rail project while leaving it in place for plain old trains.

That’s arguably not about eminent domain — because the legislation is leaving things alone for regular trains — but about proposed high-speed trains connecting the state’s biggest cities.

“This begins to make the Trans-Texas Corridor not look so bad,” Kolkhorst said this week as she presented the legislation for consideration. (It’s now on its way to the full Senate for a vote.) That’s a reference to a giant road system proposed early in Rick Perry’s tenure as governor that would have combined rail lines, highways, pipelines, electrical and communications lines all into one statewide network. It would have required rights of way up to 1,200 feet wide — that’s more than two-tenths of a mile — and it raised landowner hackles from one end of the state to another.

“I would say it would be safe to say I’m against the project,” she said in response to questions from Sen. Donald Huffines, R-Dallas, and she turned the issue back to eminent domain. “When you’re taking someone’s land, it should be in the public good.”

She also anticipated criticism about other sorts of eminent domain to which she does not object. “At least when you have a pipeline come across your property, you can drive across it,” she said.

It’s not just rails.

The House unanimously approved House Bill 122, corking the Texas Mobility Fund, a rotating fund set up in 2001 to provide money for state transportation projects. One line of argument from Rep. Joe Pickett, the El Paso Democrat sponsoring the legislation, was that the state ought to cut back on debt. The money that flows into that fund from now on would be used to retire existing debt, and the state’s highway builders would not be able to float new bonds to build roads using this fund.

They’re trying to get back to the good old days, when Texas highways were built on a pay-as-you-go system. The Mobility Fund was cooked up when state government was tight and the need for road money was great. The argument now is that the state is flush and that this would be a good time to start erasing debt.

Now for the fun part: On the same day they were approving that, House members also voted 131-13 in favor of House Bill 100, which would provide $3.1 billion to pay for capital projects — infrastructure and facilities — at Texas colleges and universities.

That’s the traditional way of paying for college buildings — with borrowed money. But Pickett (who voted for the tuition bonds) has this part correct: The state has money right now. If lawmakers were to spend every cent allowed to them under the state’s constitutional growth limits, they’d still have about $6 billion left, on top of the expected balance of $11.1 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Spending on one-time things, like those campus buildings, might require spending more money than the limits allow, which requires a simple majority of lawmakers. If half of them think it’s a good idea to spend money they have on hand, instead of borrowing money, they can do that.

“It’s brick and mortar,” Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said in an interview this week with The Texas Tribune. “Now why wouldn’t you write a check for that? Why would you go borrow the money? It’s totally the conservative thing to do. “

But that makes a lot of lawmakers nervous, and nervous lawmakers vote to pay off debt while borrowing at the same time, or make different land use laws for fast trains and slow ones, for transportation and pipelines.

It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to make their voters happy.

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State government 84th Legislative Session Budget High-speed rail Joe Pickett Lois Kolkhorst Texas Legislature