San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas
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by AMAN BATHEJA

The Texas House on Thursday gave final passage to a measure to boost funding for transportation projects, though few members expect it to survive the Senate without significant changes.

After more than an hour of debate, the House voted 108-25 for House Joint Resolution 2, clearing the 100-vote threshold required of proposed constitutional amendments. If the Senate changes the measure as expected, a conference committee would need to be called for House and Senate members to work out the differences. The Senate is scheduled to convene again Friday.

HJR 2 would ask voters to approve amending the constitution in order to raise about $800 million for the state’s highway fund through a complicated shifting of different revenue streams including oil and gas production taxes and the motor vehicle gas tax. The Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs $4 billion in extra funding each year to maintain current congestion levels across the state.

The measure’s author, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, stressed that it would not raise any taxes or fees. It also would reduce the state’s reliance on tolling and debt for future transportation projects, he said.

“It gets us another step back to pay-as-you-go,” Pickett told House members before the vote.

The measure’s impact on the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which relies on oil and gas production taxes, has emerged as a key sticking point. The fund’s balance has ballooned by billions of dollars in recent years due to an oil drilling boom. Both the Senate and House favor diverting some tax dollars from the Rainy Day Fund to support road construction and maintenance. Senators have supported a provision that blocked that diversion if the Rainy Day Fund’s balance fell below a certain level. House Democrats and many Republicans oppose such a provision, worried that it would restrain the ability of lawmakers to reduce the fund’s balance below that level, regardless of the state’s need.

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, voted for the measure but said she hoped to see a “Rainy Day Fund floor” make it into the final version of the legislation.

“I think it gives some stability to our constituents knowing that there is some safety level to our savings account,” she said.

Lawmakers also voted 124-11 for House Bill 16, which is tied to HJR 2 and would also dedicate part of future sales tax revenue collected on motor vehicle sales to TxDOT. State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, HB 16’s author, said she was hopeful that senators would take the idea seriously. Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, opposed similar proposals during the regular legislative session.

“There’s no way you will get Democrats or Republicans to support the kind of fee increases we would need to properly fund transportation,” Harper-Brown said. “This I think is a reasonable solution.”

Transportation funding remains the only unresolved issue of the current special session. Lawmakers have already addressed the abortion and criminal justice issues that Gov. Rick Perry included in the session’s agenda. Lawmakers said privately Thursday that they are concerned Perry will call them back to a third special session if transportation funding isn’t addressed before the end of the current one.

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AMAN BATHEJA reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

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