We the People…

For almost a century the Texas constitution has been used by special interests to hamstring good government. The new draft constitution changes most (but not all) of that.

IN A GRAND CEREMONY AT the Capitol on November 1, the work of the 37-member Texas Constitutional Revision Commission was presented to the presiding officers of both houses of the Legislature. It consisted of a document entitled, with hopeful anticipation, “A New Constitution for Texas,” along with an accompanying text that spelled out the reasons for the changes the Commissioners had made in the state’s 97-year-old Reconstruction-era constitution.

They grappled with almost every substantial issue that exists in Texas politics. More often than not they chose the path of caution and conservatism, avoiding the temptation to draft a “pure” but controversial document that might fail to win the approval of the coming Constitutional Convention, or of the voters themselves, who must approve any new basic law before it can take effect. Among the issues they considered were several of special concern to urban voters: mass transit, local government powers, single member legislative districts, and public school education.

Discord prevailed when the Commissioners turned their attentions to one of the most blatant bits of special-interest legislation in the current constitution, the Highway User Fund. Since 1946, when the “Good Roads Amendment” was adopted, three-fourths of the total revenue from the state’s gasoline tax has been allocated to “the sole purpose of acquiring rights of way, constructing, maintaining, and policing…public road ways” and for the administration of traffic safety laws (the remaining one-fourth, amounting to more than $80 million a year at the current tax rate of per gallon, goes to the public schools). With these constitutionally-protected funds, the State Highway Department has developed the finest highway network of any state in the union, more than 70,000 miles in all. The Department (like any bureaucracy) desperately wants to keep these funds beyond the reach of a Legislature that might one day decide to spend part of them on something else, like urban mass transit systems. In this effort they are enthusiastically supported by the Texas Good Roads Association, which lobbies tirelessly for highway expenditures in perpetuity.

Several members of the Constitutional Revision Commission were of the opinion that even if the time has not yet come to allocate a portion of gasoline taxes to mass transit, the time surely has come to free the Legislature from an ironclad constitutional prohibition against doing so in the future. Other members questioned the wisdom of insulating highway funds from Legislative scrutiny while other funds, like health, were left to the give-and-take of political infighting that occurs with every biennial appropriation bill. Still others objected to the whole concept of special “dedicated” tax funds that are set in constitutional concrete. Consequently, they found themselves allied against the advocates of the status quo on the opening question of whether to preserve any dedicated highway fund at all.

Few issues elicited more emotional heat among the Commissioners. Vice Chairman Beryl Milburn, an influential leader in the state Republican party, supported the Fund with her most impassioned speech of the hearings:

This fund reflects the years of work that have gone on the highways, the safety system, the life blood of this state which has been built on transportation and communication….I would be very reluctant to remove the constitutional seal from this provision.

Dr. George Beto, a Lutheran minister who formerly directed the Texas Department of Corrections, urged his fellow Commissioners to remove the Fund:

I think you are being extremely short-sighted in committing yourselves to a dedicated tax for highways in this rapidly-changing technological age….

…you are taking a non-human value in this state and dedicating millions of dollars to it. To me a much more pressing problem than good highways—and I realize that I am almost speaking against the Flag, Motherhood, and God when I say this—but a much more pressing problem is the treatment of mentally retarded children in this state….

It was left to Dr. Peter Flawn, a geologist who currently serves as President of the University of Texas at San Antonio, to rebut Beto’s appeal. In a retort that is unlikely to win any Comeback-of-the-Year awards, Commissioner Flawn exclaimed:

Dr. Beto, who uses the highways? Human beings! You don’t believe that mentally retarded children are transported to and from hospitals over highways?

By a vote of 13 to lO, the Commissioners decided to keep the highway Fund in the constitution. The battle-ground then shifted to the question of how broad that provision would be. Former United States Senator Ralph Yarborough successfully (but as it turned out, only temporarily) managed to rephrase it to set aside “not less than one-fourth” of the revenues for the public schools, leaving the door open for a future legislature to increase the share going to education at the expense of the share going to highways—even to the point of allocating the gasoline tax wholIy to education. There was also discussion of amending the provision to permit future use of the highway share for county roads and urban mass transit, if the Legislature so chose.

No sooner had Yarborough’s proposal prevailed by a vote of 20-14 than representatives of the State Highway Commission, the trucking industry, and the Good Roads Association set out to overturn it, and to block any forthcoming amendment that might have allowed Mass Transit to get its sinister, unTexan foot in the door. The Commissioners were bombarded with pro-highway propaganda bluntly implying that those who doubted that highways shollld get preferential treatment really wanted to abolish roads. The highway Fund advocates declared with straight faces that this section of the Texas constitution must be left the way it is, because “there is no other way to keep the economy of this country rolling.”

The Good Roads Association diagrammed in exquisite detail the catastrophes which would befall a people so foolish as to believe that highways ought to win their appropriations by logic and persuasion.

“There are 505,346 Texas school children who go to school each day by bus.” [If the Fund were removed or squandered on mass transit, a future Abe Lincoln would presumably have to walk.]

“Texas farmers are wholly dependent on highway transportation….Good roads help to keep

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