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The first thing Texas Secretary of State Jane Nelson noticed when she peered into the tiny cab of her office’s only state vehicle was the manual window crank.
“I haven’t used these in years,” she exclaimed, rotating the squeaking handle of the 1998 Ford Ranger and chuckling as the window scudded open.
The pristine white 25-year-old pickup, owned by the agency since George W. Bush was governor, is way overdue for a replacement, according to the state’s vehicle maintenance plan — which recommends new state-owned passenger vehicles after nine years or 100,000 miles.
With fewer than 35,000 miles, the truck is well under the mileage limit. But it’s more than double the age limit for trucks in its class — not to mention that of the average American’s personal automobile.
“She’s a grand ol’ dame,” Nelson said, with an affectionate look at the pickup. “But it’s time for her to retire. Honestly, it’s a safety factor with the older vehicles. And the new ones are more efficient on safety and technology.”
To that end, Nelson is asking state budget writers for $30,000 to purchase a replacement vehicle and put the old Ranger out to pasture (or, more likely, up for auction or resale).
It is but a drop in the bucket for a state with a $32.7 billion cash surplus this budget cycle — an amount of money that could gas up Texans’ cars for a year. But it’s also one of many agencies asking to replace old, tired vehicles at some point before the Legislature meets again in 2025. Those requests total $237.6 million, including $60 million in new requests over the current budget cycle.
And although it’s hard to predict how much they will ultimately get, it’s easy to understand why lawmakers appear to be supportive of fully funding those requests in early budget drafts, agency officials say.
The average age of the nearly 34,000 vehicles in the state-owned fleet belonging to 100 agencies, colleges and universities is about 10 years, according to a recent report by the Texas comptroller’s office.
Some vehicles, like semitrailers owned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, date to the 1970s and have nearly a million miles on them, spokesperson Jason Clark said. Others, like those used by Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, are mostly late-model vehicles purchased in the last five years.
If all of the requests are approved with no changes, the state would be spending nearly 30% more on vehicle replacement this year than in the past two years.
The money for fleet management and replacement comes from general revenue tax dollars. Sometimes it’s allocated for that purpose by lawmakers in the budget bill, but other times it’s paid to agencies out of dedicated revenue streams that require no specific action by lawmakers.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, for example, used the Sporting Goods Sales Tax last cycle to purchase 562 vehicles after voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the agency to use it for that reason, a spokesperson said.
Many of those new vehicles were replacing trucks that were 20 years old.
With more than 260,000 square miles of ground to cover in Texas, agencies say using state vehicles is typically cheaper, safer and more reliable than rentals or mileage reimbursements for employees — particularly those whose jobs include on-site inspections, working in remote places and conducting statewide investigations.
When that safety and reliability start to falter, that creates some urgent needs for the agencies, officials told lawmakers.
The Texas Historical Commission is asking for nearly $2 million to replace 69 vehicles in its fleet of 99, after being denied any funding to replace 57 of them in 2021. Employees use those vehicles to maintain some 35 historical sites throughout Texas, many of them in extremely remote areas.
If another cycle goes by with no new vehicles, according to the agency’s appropriations request, 70% of the fleet will average 12 years of age by 2025, with a handful clocking double the amount of miles recommended by the state for replacement, commission chair John L. Nau III told the Senate Finance Committee in January.
“I run a very, very large fleet, and we have some vehicles that have some mileage levels that are probably not good to be out on the street,” Nau said.
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission wants $1.3 million to replace 28 vehicles, some as old as 16 years, after budget cuts in 2021 resulted in office closures and staff reductions. That forced employees to drive more miles to conduct investigations, including inspections of the more than 59,000 liquor-licensed locations the TABC monitors throughout the state, the agency said in its request.
Large fleets, high costs
Overall operational costs of the state’s fleet, including fuel, maintenance and repair, jumped from $0.53 per mile in 2016 to $0.72 per mile in 2021. Then it almost doubled to $1.40 per mile in 2022.
A state-owned passenger bus — such as those used by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to transport inmates between facilities — should be replaced when it’s 10 years old or has 300,000 miles on it, Clark said.
But two dozen of the prison system’s vehicles are 20 years old with more than 600,000 miles on them, Clark said. In 2021, the fuel cost alone for the agency’s fleet of about 2,600 was roughly $9.7 million. Last year, that cost jumped to $14.8 million — enough to fund the Texas Commission on the Arts for two years or the Texas Ethics Commission for four.
Many of those vehicles are used to transport food and supplies to prison facilities, making their reliability “literally a meat-and-potatoes issue for us,” Clark said.
But they’re also used to transport inmates, sometimes with 30 passengers or more — and when one of those vehicles breaks down, local law enforcement has to be called to the scene to maintain security, along with other logistical issues, Clark said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety is asking for $12 million to replace vehicles next biennium, and agency officials say that rising costs are decreasing the amount of vehicles the agency can purchase each year. The fuel bill for 7.7 million gallons of gas consumed by the DPS fleet in 2021 was $18.6 million. Last year, it was nearly twice that for 8.6 million gallons.
Others asking for money for new vehicles include the juvenile prison system, the state Department of Agriculture, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Many aren’t asking for anything new this cycle.
The Texas attorney general’s office, for one, isn’t asking to bump up the funding for new cars this time. Its budget request instead focuses on new money for salary increases, tech updates, and additional staff and resources for the agency’s 150-person criminal investigation division.
Since Paxton was elected in 2015, the attorney general increased his office’s fleet from 66 in 2016 to 354 in 2022. Those vehicles were purchased mainly for criminal investigators and peace officers employed by the attorney general’s office, who as recently as 2016 were using their own cars or rentals during investigations that ranged from election fraud and cold cases to child exploitation, human trafficking and catching fugitives, said Kristen House, the office’s communications director, in a statement emailed to The Texas Tribune.
“OAG Investigators showing up to a home to serve a search warrant in rental cars or personal vehicles may seem unthinkable, but that is exactly why the Attorney General began an effort to assign law enforcement vehicles to agency peace officers,” House said.
How to prioritize
With a record-breaking state surplus up for grabs — and so many big-ticket items steering the budget discussions — some lawmakers wondered if there is even the time or the ability to fully investigate the fleet requests before they are approved later this session.
For example, can a handful of trucks at one agency hang on for a few more years and save $100,000 in the budget, or will they put safety at risk if they go another thousand miles?
“We have so many unmet needs, everything from infrastructure to education and health care, the criminal justice system, foster care, I mean the list goes on and on,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, a veteran member of the House Appropriations Committee. “So where do the vehicles fall on that? I don’t know, because I haven’t seen what the issue is with replacing them. Is it just because they have X number of miles on them? Is it because they’re breaking down, and it’s going to start costing us more to maintain them? I don’t have that information yet.”
The issue begs the question of whether lawmakers should spend time nickel-and-diming every corner of the 1,033-page budget draft in the 140 days they have available to them to sift through a proposed $288.7 billion budget — or if they should stay focused on bigger proposals, like a $15 billion property tax cut, even if that means smaller requests may go by unexplored.
“I don’t know that we have a process in place that’s really inclusive, with multiple voices, looking at what those assumptions are and how we’re going to set those priorities,” Howard said of the fleet requests. “But that’s what I would want to do.”
With her $30,000 request, Nelson, the former chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said she has a solid case for replacing the vehicle that dates back to the 1998 Furby craze.
Nelson doesn’t actually drive the pickup with manual window cranks and a radio with no tape deck. That pleasure is reserved for the administrative employees who use it to take paperwork to and from the post office, to the state Capitol, and to other state offices in the area from the secretary’s building on the corner of 11th and Brazos in Austin.
The four-cylinder automatic transmission base-model Ranger still has the engine, paint, interior and radio that it had when it was purchased new, shortly after Mother Theresa died and right before the search engine “BackRub” was renamed “Google.”
The pickup, its condition a rolling testament to a flawless state-sponsored maintenance schedule, has never even been in a fender-bender.
But it’s going into repair more and more often — most recently for an alternator — and the sheer age of the vehicle has Nelson worried about its safety and reliability.
“I’m proud of our agency for taking such good care of our vehicle,” Nelson said. “But after 25 years, it’s time for a replacement.”
Disclosure: The Texas comptroller of public accounts, Texas Historical Commission, Texas Parks And Wildlife Department and Texas secretary of state have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.