Wrecks and Roadblocks

A proposal to expand funding for transportation may face some snarls in the Texas House.

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Although the Eighty-third regular legislative session was, by most accounts, a good one—or at least better than the one that preceded it—there was one major issue that didn’t get nearly the traction leaders in both chambers had hoped for: transportation.

There was widespread agreement, at the start of the session, that Texas should invest more in infrastructure. Years of economic and population growth have exacerbated congestion in the state’s major corridors, and left many roads in need of repair. Joe Straus, a Republican from San Antonio and Speaker of the House, listed roads as one of his priorities for the session. So did Tommy Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands and chair of the Senate Finance Committee. So did Governor Rick Perry, who has, for that matter, raised the issue several times over his long tenure, without much luck. 

The good news, then, is that an elegant proposal for transportation funding has passed the Texas Senate. The measure, SJR 2, would dedicate half of future revenues going into the Rainy Day Fund for such projects, as long as the fund's overall balance is at least $6 billion. The additional funding wouldn't be enough to meet all of Texas's needs, as delineated by the state Department of Transportation, but it would be something. And while it may not be everyone's preferred plan, none of the others have gone very far. “You know, this is a solution,” said Williams in an interview just after the regular session concluded. “There’s been a very big resistance from the middle office out on the west side of the building”—that is, the governor's office—“to new fees to pay for this.”

The bad news is that the proposal is now in the House, which is where such ideas were scuttled during the regular session. And what’s striking about those wrecks is that roads aren’t some kind of commie plot like fluoride and smart meters. They’re things that businesses use for business. Texas should be able to muster up some money to keep them in repair: to do so would be pro-business.

Yet the Republican-led House was, apparently, skittish about the specter of the tea party caucus, and that may still be the case. So the transportation debate is once again a debate about the tea party’s influence in Texas.

Let’s review what happened in the regular session. Given the aforementioned concerns about transportation in Texas, legislators had offered a number of ideas about how to pay for it. Kevin Eltife, a Republican senator from Tyler, proposed raising the state’s gas tax. Robert Nichols, a Republican senator from Jacksonville (who later came up with the idea now in SJR 2), wanted to raise the state’s annual vehicle registration fee. Perry, for his part, called for the state to issue long-term bonds.

None of those ideas were particularly partisan, or inflammatory, in themselves, although they did reflect some substantive differences. Proponents of raising the gas tax, for example, argued that it would be more responsible—and more fiscally conservative, in that sense—to raise revenue than to add more to Texas’s debt burden. Critics of that approach had reasonable qualms: raising the gas tax would put extra pressure on taxpayers, especially low-income ones, and the gas tax is an unreliable revenue stream, because cars and trucks are becoming more efficient.

The substantive debate about transportation took second fiddle, though, to the fight being picked by a small group of legislators and a handful of activists hovering around the Capitol who were apparently determined to take a hard-line stance against any growth in spending. Even spending spurred by the state’s staggering growth in recent years. Even spending on critical infrastructure like highways. Even spending endorsed by high-profile Texas Republicans like Perry and Williams, who are widely considered fiscally conservative.

For most of the regular session, there was a running debate about how many legislators were part of what is usually summarized as the “tea party caucus” and, relatedly, how influential that caucus really was.

By the end, both questions had been indirectly answered. Sixteen Republicans in the House voted against SJR 1, the proposal to ask voters, in November, whether they want to take $1.8 billion out of the Rainy Day Fund to allocate for water infrastructure projects. That vote served as a pretty good proxy for the size of the hard-line faction. Water, after all, isn’t some kind of lefty boondoggle. It was the state’s bean-counting business lobbyists, as pollster Jim Henson explains here, who led the effort to invest in it. And the resolution, which passed May 22, doesn’t fund anything; it only allows Texas to ask the voter if they are willing to spend some of the state’s savings on water projects, which is pretty egalitarian.

That being the case, it seems likely that a philosophically similar effort to increase transportation funding would have been able to muster enough votes to pass the house, but we can't be sure, because the House didn't vote on any of the ideas at hand. A measure to raise the vehicle registration fee, from San Angelo Republican Drew Darby, fizzled at the last minute after being postponed in response to pushback, and a last-ditch effort from the Senate to consider a version of the idea now proposed in SJR 2 went nowhere after the House adjourned without calling a conference committee on a related measure, which would have allowed for the discussion. 

And so for the second question, about how much influence the tea party types had, the answer proved to be: more than you would think, given that there aren’t that many people in it.

Still, the fiscal hyper-hawks kept up their clamor about state spending after the end of the regular session, because Perry had until June 16 to sign the budget. Chief among them was the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the influential Austin-based think tank, which harrumphed about the budget for weeks, saying that the Eighty-third Lege’s “session spending” amounted to a 26 percent increase over the “session spending” of 2011.

There’s a reason that phrase is in quotes. By “session spending,” TPPF apparently means the amount of money appropriated by the Legislature over the course of the regular session. The problem with that way of looking at it is that because of Texas’s various budgeting idiosyncrasies, the Lege often ends up appropriating funds for a number of years. This year, they had to appropriate a lot of funds to backfill the 2012-13 budget, for reasons I explain at some length here. If you look at Texas’s spending using the normal method—that is, how much money the state actually spends from year to year—the state’s spending will grow in 2014-15 compared to 2012-13, but not at a shocking rate, especially given the growth in Texas itself.

So when the Wall Street Journal weighed in last week with a scolding editorial about Texas’s supposed “spending spree,” the state’s Republican leaders were unimpressed. Williams and Jim Pitts, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, sent an irritated letter back to the Journal: “Apparently you used the same fuzzy math promoted by one Texas special-interest group to sully our rock-solid Texas budget.” Perry, who is often aligned with TPPF on fiscal matters, scoffed that the critics could use “remedial work”. Several days later, he signed the budget, without making too much use of his line-item veto.

In the interim, however, Perry added abortion to the list of topics for the special session. Such a red-meat gesture seemed like an effort to shore up his credentials with the tea-party type Republicans, who might otherwise mistake him for a big-spending liberal. As small as this faction is, they still have some influence, and they clearly mean to use it. Let’s hope it’s not enough to preclude the serious debate over Texas's transportation issues this time around.

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