, Port Arthur, Texas


May 9, 2013

Has the rainy day arrived yet?

AUSTIN — It's crunch time in the Texas Legislature, and the fight for state dollars underlines it.

The 140-day regular legislative session ends May 27. And legislators are fighting fiercely for pet projects, and the money to fund them.

High on the list of big expenditure are transportation, water, education, and health care.

Legislators are trying different ways to use the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund, anticipated to have about $12 billion by the end of the two-year spending cycle that begins Sept. 1.

A House effort by Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Beaumont, to use $2 billion for a revolving loan account for local government water projects got sidetracked on a parliamentary technicality.

Led by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, Democrats balked because the bill didn't include money for education, which was cut in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Texas Senate unanimously passed a proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 1, to let voters decide if they want to spend $2 billion for water, $2.9 billion for transportation and $800 million for public education from the fund.

Advantages are that constitutional amendment money doesn't count against the state's spending cap, and it lets legislators say they're not mandating spending, just letting the voters decide.

It also bypasses Gov. Rick Perry, since constitutional amendments go directly to voters, not through him.

House Speaker Joe Straus favors funding the water projects, but says a constitutional amendment passes the buck.

"We weren't sent here to govern like California," Straus said – a reference to laws passed there by citizens  bypassing the legislature through initiative and referendum.

"It's a decision we should make right now," Straus told reporters. Punting it to voters "sends the wrong signal. It's abdicating our responsibility."

He predicted the Senate's proposal "is a no-go in the House." He said the House would find the water money somehow.

• • •

For a change, prisons aren't as high on the competitive list. Texas lawmakers have gradually figured out better ways to deal with lawbreakers.

Leaders like longtime Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, have convinced colleagues the state is wiser to deal with non-violent lawbreakers in treatment programs, education and job training, and community service, than by warehousing them.

It's more humane and effective. It's also cheaper. The state has actually closed some prisons.

• • •

Here's a novel approach: a conservative Republican state senator, Kevin Eltife of Tyler, actually suggests a constitutional amendment for a tax hike to pay off the state's transportation bond debt run up over the last decade.

"We have spent the past 10 years funding a large portion of our transportation needs with debt, now totaling $13 billion," Eltife said in a column that ran in some newspapers.

Without pointing out Gov. Perry's opposition to tax hikes since he became governor in 2000, Eltife says raising the gasoline tax — stuck at 20 cents a gallon since 1991 — could have prevented some of this.

"It would have been much more conservative to raise the gas tax 10 years ago, index it to inflation and pay cash for infrastructure than to have gone billions of dollars into debt to pay for projects," Eltife said.

Three-fourths of the fuels tax revenue is earmarked for transportation, and one-fourth for the Available School Fund.

Sure, politicians can "boast that we have not raised taxes during this same time, but I would argue that this debt, coupled with interest, is a tax on future generations," Eltife said.

"If nothing is done this session to deal with the debt, it will be 2045 before the $27 billion in debt and interest will be paid off," Eltife said.

He cites several possibilities:

"(D)edicating motor vehicle sales taxes to transportation, increasing the gas tax, increasing vehicle registration fees, and my proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 47, which would let voters decide whether to temporarily increase the sales tax and dedicate the revenue to retire our transportation debt."

He says it could be done in 15 years, put Texas back on a "pay as you go" approach to spending, and spare our children and grandchildren the debt load.

• • •

Backers of almost $1 billion in school bonds in Austin have mailed an over-sized post card blaming the need for it on education funding cuts driven by Perry's refusal to raise taxes.

"Under Rick Perry, Texas has CUT funding for public schools by 25 percent," the card says on one side.

"Oops, I forgot to fund public education," the card has Perry saying on the other. "It's time for Austin to take care of Austin."

Austin is in Travis County, where Perry got 36.7 percent in his 2010 re-election.

Contact McNeely at or 512/458-2963.

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