A third called session of the Texas Legislature began July 30 and ended Aug. 5 with the task completed: passage of legislation to create a new funding path for transportation projects.
Given the contentiousness of the two previous called sessions that each lasted a full 30 days, lawmakers plowed their way to comparatively quick votes to give Gov. Rick Perry what he wanted. It’s a two-part solution.
First, Senate Joint Resolution 1 by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is a proposed constitutional amendment that voters will see on the November 2014 ballot. SJR 1, should voters approve it, would take 50 percent of the state’s oil and gas severance taxes that normally are deposited in the state Economic Stabilization (“Rainy Day”) Fund and instead put that revenue into the state highway fund.
Second, House Bill 1 by Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, establishes a select committee on transportation funding, expenditures and finance. Committee membership would be made up of five House members and five Senate members to be appointed by the presiding officers of their respective chambers. The select committee will set a minimum balance each fiscal biennium for the Rainy Day Fund.
Whatever the panel suggests as an amount then would need final approval by majority vote of both House and Senate. HB 1 also requires the Texas Department of Transportation to find a way to save at least $100 million in funds appropriated to the agency for 2014-15 and that money would be used to pay down the agency’s debt.
Gov. Perry on Aug. 5 said the Legislature’s action “moves our state closer to securing a strong economy well into the future by providing more resources for building and maintaining a transportation system that will keep our economy growing and our population moving.”
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said, “This plan enables us to relieve congestion on Texas roadways while protecting our state’s ‘AAA’ bond rating with a healthy balance in the Rainy Day Fund. To protect our Rainy Day fund, I am recommending a floor of $6 to $7 billion for the next two years.”
During debate action on Aug. 5, lawmakers in both chambers expressed concern over the condition of rural roads in their districts that are heavily traversed by oil and gas industry vehicles. They said the repair and restoration of those roads should be high priority.
TAX REVENUE INCREASES
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs on Aug. 7 announced that state sales tax revenue in July was $2.2 billion, up 7.3 percent compared to July 2012.
“Texas sales tax revenue has increased for 40 consecutive months,” Combs said. “The retail trade sector bolstered the latest growth in monthly revenue, and collections from the construction and the oil and natural gas sectors continued to show strength.”
Combs said her agency would send cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts their August local sales tax allocations totaling $671 million, up 6.2 percent compared to August 2012.
‘FRACKING’ IS CREDITED
Texas Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick last week told the American Legislative Exchange Council about the importance of hydraulic fracturing technology during the lobbying group’s annual meeting in Chicago.
Among her comments, Craddick said “fracking” is estimated to be used in about 80 percent of new wells completed in Texas today, and, “For almost 50 years, OPEC has manipulated oil markets, holding the United States captive to their supply-and price-setting whims. Thanks to fracking technology, America is moving closer to fulfilling its energy needs domestically.”
DRIVER LAW TOUGHENS UP
Current law requires drivers to move over and slow down for law enforcement, fire and emergency vehicles, but effective Sept. 1, drivers also must move over or slow down to 20 miles an hour below the posted limit when approaching Texas Department of Transportation workers and vehicles that are stopped with overhead flashing blue or amber lights, the agency announced last week.
TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson lauded the Legislature for passing a law that recognizes the dangers agency employees face each day. “We are hopeful that this new protection for our crews will lead to fewer preventable deaths and injuries,” Wilson said.
On roadways with posted speed limits of 25 miles per hour or less drivers must reduce their speed to 5 miles per hour and violators can be fined up to $2,000.
Ed Sterling is Director of Member Services for the Texas Press Association, headquartered in Austin.