Constitutional Amendment Season Spans Two Years This Time Around

Written by  Tom Johnson

“A constitutional amendment to provide for the transfer of certain general revenue to the economic stabilization fund, and to the state highway fund, and for the dedication of the revenue dedicated to the state highway fund”

This simple sentence paves the way for the voters of the state of Texas to pass a constitutional amendment that will provide the Texas Department of Transportation with 1.2 billion additional dollars annually. It took the legislature one regular and three special sessions to agree on the above language. In addition, I will remind you that the AGC of Texas Highway Funding Task Force started working on this issue roughly two years ago and charged Thomas Bohuslav with identifying the true numbers on the future of our highway construction in Texas.

After six months of hard pushing and digging, the Highway Funding Task Force came up with three major information pieces defined as “The Cost of Doing Nothing.” In addition, TxDOT had appointed the 2030 Committee to identify the future of highway needs. The 2030 Committee was made up of outside individuals from the University of Texas, Texas A & M University, and key business people. The basic need was defined as an additional four billion dollars.

Through the combined efforts of many, the public became aware of the need for additional highway funds. Although four billion dollars was a pretty giant increase, members of the legislature were extremely supportive of providing additional funding for the road program. The difficulty, however, appeared when it came time for the different factions within the legislature to agree on the means to provide the funds.

As evidenced by the recent U.S. Senate race between Lt. Governor Dewhurst and Ted Cruz, there is substantial turmoil within the Republican Party. Nor is there cohesive agreement among the Democrats. The difficulty that faced proponents of additional highway funding stemmed from a difference of basic funding philosophies: should we have a pay as you go program or incur additional debt; and should we take full advantage of current revenue versus creating new revenue for the building and maintaining of our road program?

In the final analysis, many pulled (or were pulled) together to secure the constitutional amendment. But we must give special credit to one person who never wavered, and that is Senator Robert Nichols from Jacksonville. The final legislation carried the full backing of the Governor, Lt. Governor, and the Speaker of the House as well as key committee chairmen from both the House and the Senate. In order to pass a constitutional amendment that contains 1.2 billion dollars and potential growth, it takes full cooperation from all of the elected leaders. That is exactly what happened.

Now comes the difficult chore of passing not one, but two constitutional amendments. The first is Proposition 6 on the November 5, 2013 ballot that will provide for an additional two billion dollars from the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund for the establishment of a financial program for water projects in the state of Texas. In addition to the Rainy Day Fund amendment for water, there will be eight other constitutional amendments to be voted on November 5, 2013.

The first item on the ballot deals with a property tax exemption for spouses and veterans and also authorizes a tax exemption for all or part of the market value of the residences of spouses of military members who are killed in action. The second item on the ballot deals with elimination of the requirement for state medical education board and state medical education fund. The third proposition would extend the tax exemption period of storing aircraft parts in the state and would provide more tax relief to aerospace manufacturers. The fourth proposition gives a partial property tax exemption on charity donated residences to disabled veterans or their surviving spouses. The fifth amendment that will appear on the ballot would allow homeowners of 62 years or older to use reverse mortgages to purchase residences. Current law expressly allows traditional mortgages only, which let homeowners borrow against the equity in their home. The sixth amendment is the aforementioned water plan. The seventh item on the ballot would authorize home rule municipalities to choose how to fill city council vacancies if the positions have less than 12 months remaining in a three or four year term. The eighth amendment would repeal the constitutional provision authorizing the creation of a hospital in Hidalgo County. The ninth and final amendment on the ballot would authorize the state commission on Judicial Conduct to use additional disciplinary action including public admonition, warning, reprimand, or required additional training for education against judges or justices.

The highway enhancement constitutional amendment will not appear until the following year, on the November 4, 2014 ballot. If adopted by the public, it will become effective immediately. The stipulations in the constitutional amendment prevent the money to be used for toll roads.

The chapter anticipates massive involvement in passage of Proposition 6 establishing the additional funding of the water plan this November and will spend the next thirteen months working to educate the public on the highway needs and what can be accomplished should the voters adopt the amendment on November 4, 2014.

The members of this association should be congratulated on the outstanding job that they did on working with members of the legislature in passage of this badly needed legislation. While working on passage of the amendment it is going to be important to maintain the current level of enthusiasm with members of the legislature to make sure that in the next session they will follow up with the additional 2.8 billion dollars that will be needed to properly fund the program.

The scorecard is now out on the lettings that TxDOT went to contract with during fiscal year 2013. There was $4.29 billion state let projects; $508 million local let; $574 million other obligations; and $2.077 billion Design-Build projects for a total of $7.450 billion. Current projections show that in 2014 there will be a slight drop in the state let projects, a slight increase in the local let, a slight increase in other obligations, and a dramatic reduction in the Design-Build, not counting the Harris County Grand Parkway projects. We can anticipate that fiscal year 2014 will run somewhere between 3.5 billion and 4 billion dollars in lettings here in Austin, and if we all do our homework and educate the public on the need for a YES vote on the ballot, we should expect more in 2015 and beyond.

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