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House Approves Use of Sales Tax for Highways

The Texas House gave initial approval Thursday to a major boost in transportation funding from sales taxes, setting the stage for a showdown with the Senate over the best way to pay for Texas roads.

State Sen. Robert Nichols R-Jacksonville, and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, speak at a Texas Tribune event on April 7, 2015.

The Texas House gave initial approval Thursday to a major boost in transportation funding, setting the stage for a showdown with the Senate over how best to pay for Texas roads.

A plan to devote more than $3 billion in general sales tax revenue each year to the highway fund, House Bill 13 by Transportation Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, tentatively passed the House on a voice vote. The change would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment, and the House also tentatively passed a companion measure calling for a 2016 referendum.

Last month, the Senate approved its own transportation plan by Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, allocating the first $2.5 billion in annual car sales tax revenue to the general fund and the next $2.5 billion to the highway fund. Some of the revenue collected beyond $5 billion would also go to the highway fund. Texans pay a 6.25 percent sales tax on automobiles, which currently amounts to about $4 billion a year going into the state's all-purpose general revenue fund.

The chambers will need to find common ground on a funding plan to address state infrastructure needs that Gov. Greg Abbott declared one of his five legislative emergency items.

State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, said in an interview it “doesn’t make any difference” to him whether the state uses money from the general sales tax or the motor vehicle sales tax.

“We need to make sure, though, that by doing that we don’t jeopardize the future needs of this state like medical, school children, higher education and other priorities,” said Darby, long active in transportation issues. “So that’s been my only concern: Can we do that and leave enough revenue for appropriators to meet the needs of a growing state?”

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, was one of the three Democrats who voted against Pickett's transportation package.

"This bill is neither conservative nor responsible, in my opinion," Howard said. "We've already passed bills that have used the money available to us. Where is this money coming from?"

The House also initially passed House Bill 20 by state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, which requires the Texas Department of Transportation to provide progress reports to state lawmakers and other officials so they can assess how well the department is functioning. The bill is aimed at adding transparency to how the department distributes funds to transportation projects.

“It’s really about having decisions made based on process, as opposed to politics,” Simmons said. “We want to make sure that our infrastructure decisions are made based on need of the state.”

Aman Batheja contributed to this report.

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