Let the (shell) games begin
Fri January 23, 2009 10:47 am

In an interview with the Dallas Morning News this week, Gov. Rick Perry advocated an end to all diversions of gas tax money from the Highway Fund, which is used primarily to finance road construction. But two key senators believe the current budget estimates make that highly unlikely this session.

Furthermore, one of them, Senate Finance chair Steve Ogden calls the diversion issue "misleading," and not particularly significant.

The Senate budget bill filed this week uses $1.2 billion of Highway Fund money to pay for the Department of Public Safety, while preserving $16 billion for TxDOT, Ogden notes. Under the Texas Constitution, the Highway Fund is dedicated to both road construction and enforcement of traffic laws. "DPS is just as entitled to that money," he argued.

This session's SB 1 does set aside $300 million in general revenue money to reduce diversion from the Highway Fund (past budgets diverted money for school buses, Medicaid transportation and the like), but "nobody seems to have noticed," Ogden said. He said he opposed a hard-and-fast policy against all diversions, though. "In times of plenty, it's fine to pay for the DPS with the sales tax, but we don't want to put ourselves in a box," he said.

Senator John Carona, chairman of transportation, agreed that the chances of Highway Fund diversions "dropped considerably with the budget estimates." He's hoping that a bill allowing for local option tax increases for mobility projects will provide needed transportation cash.

In a Dallas meeting, Perry told the newspaper's writers: "I know we have a tight budget, but you prioritize.  What's more important -- building transportation infrastructure in your area, or is there something more important?" Asked if he wanted to end all diversions, Perry said, "That's our position -- all of it."

Of Perry's comments, Ogden said simply:  "It's fine if we wants to throw out proposals. We'll consider 'em."

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