The Legislature may be using the special session to talk about redistricting maps for the next week or so, but that isn’t stopping two state senators from throwing out ideas for generating more transportation funding.
State Senators Tommy Williams (R – The Woodlands) and Robert Nichols (R – Jacksonville) have filed legislation focused on finding more money for transportation, just in case Gov. Perry adds transportation funding to the list of issues the Legislature can take up and consider.
You may recall Senator Williams was the author of the infamous SJR 1, now on its way to the November ballot. In its original form, Williams sought to raid the Economic Stabilization Fund of up to $5.7 billion, more than $3 billion of which would go towards transportation funding. SJR 1 was later amended to only set up a constitutionally dedicated water fund that would later be filled with ESF money.
With no major action on transportation funding during the regular session, Mssrs. Williams and Nichols are now proposing to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes that fill up the ESF to the State Highway Fund.
Arguably it’s a better solution than ones previously proposed, but it’s still a diversion. It’s just diverting future revenue instead of revenue already collected. And their plan fails to address what many in the conservative movement have decried about transportation, and specifically the State Highway Fund, all along.
One-quarter of the revenue derived from the state’s gas tax is constitutionally diverted to public education before it even flows into the State’s Highway Fund. And a significant amount of money that does make it into the fund gets statutorily diverted to purposes other than highway construction, such as DPS highway patrol, the attorney general and comptroller’s office, and auxiliary functions of public education.
So if we’re going to pour more money into the bucket, shouldn’t we at least plug up the hole at the bottom first?
What lawmakers should consider, including Governor Perry if he is to add transportation funding to the call of the special session, is ending the remaining diversions from the State Highway Fund, and implement the ESF to Endowment idea proposed by Rep. Van Taylor (R – Plano).
ESF to Endowment would ensure a full and healthy balance in the Economic Stabilization Fund (aka ‘Rainy Day Fund’) in order to protect the state’s credit rating and hedge against unforeseen revenue shortfalls.
Once the balance reaches a certain threshold (7% of general revenue for instance), interest earned from the entire corpus of the fund would then be constitutionally dedicated to the State Highway Fund (or for water development… or public education… most likely a combination of the three).
It’s up to Governor Perry to decide if he wants to explore this idea further in the special session, assuming he wants to take up transportation at all. Such a call would allow lawmakers to address a pressing issue, while responsibly planning for the fiscal future of our great state.