Rainy Day Dollars for Highways? Voters decide November 2014

Written by  Lawrence Olsen
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Representative Dan Branch, candidate for Texas Attorney General, discusses Texas history and transportation at the August monthly luncheon.   Lawrence welcomes Branch to the monthly luncheon

Since this column was last published in June, the Texas Legislature has been called back twice to complete the agenda given it by Governor Rick Perry. With the adoption of Senate Joint Resolution 1 on August 5, the legislature has adjourned sine die (Latin for “without day,” or in Texian “thank God they're gone!”). Frankly, this is one observer who is very glad they were here and passed two vital pieces of legislation critical to future highway funding. This was the first time that back-to-back-to-back special sessions have been called since Governor Bill Clements compelled sessions in 1990 dealing with public school finance. That trio totaled 65 days; this one was 67.

What does SJR 1 propose? This brainchild of Senators Robert Nichols and co-author Tommy Williams would take 50 percent of the state's oil and gas severance tax now dedicated to the Economic Stabilization Fund (aka Rainy Day Fund) and put that revenue into the state highway fund. With the updated revenue estimate by Comptroller Susan Combs, it is forecast that, pending voter approval, about $1.2 billion annually will be sent to the state highway fund. Under the proposed amendment, these monies would be used only for non-tolled roads.

This same plan passed the Senate in the first and second special sessions; it passed the House in the first special session but fell 16 votes short of the needed 100 votes in the second called session, which ran out of time the next day.

Governor Perry called legislators back on the evening of July 30. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was quick to act and the Senate rapidly passed SJR 1, once again, by a vote of 22-3. Senators Nichols, Williams, Whitmire, Hinojosa and Eltife were appointed by Lt. Governor Dewhurst to work with the House. Similarly, House Speaker Joe Straus appointed key leaders, Representatives Larry Phillips, Joe Pickett and Drew Darby, who worked diligently with other members to secure the needed votes.

On August 5th, the House passed SJR 1 by a vote of 106-20. One representative recorded as not voting was Calendars Committee Chairman Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi. Immediately after the vote was finalized, he told the House Journal Clerk that his machine had malfunctioned and he wanted to be shown as voting yes. Hunter had joined six other House members to serve in the 3rd called session special transportation committee. Larry Phillips chaired this committee, which included Charlie Geren, Linda Harper Brown, Cindy Burkett, Sergio Munoz, Jr. and Senfronia Thompson. Thompson was the only member of the committee to oppose SJR 1 on the House floor. El Paso Democrat Joe Pickett was the primary House sponsor of both SJR 1 and HB 1 and his co-sponsors were Larry Phillips, Drew Darby and Linda Harper Brown.

Throughout this entire process, many observers in the press and elsewhere, predicted the special session would never pass any highway funding measure. Over and over, the naysayers opined: “It's too hard to get anything on the ballot, impossible to get 100 votes in the House, there are too many new members (64 freshmen and sophomores), House won't talk to the Senate and Senate can't stand the House.”

But guess what? The whiners were proven wrong. Those clichés have been heard for so long in the halls of the Capitol that they've grown whiskers. The leadership had the will to get it done. And members such as Nichols, Williams, Pickett, Phillips and Darby never gave up. They showed up every day and got their colleagues to understand that postponing positive action would not do anybody good and the public would certainly take note of it.

TGR has never had so many allies who really worked to get this program passed. The Texas Association of Realtors, the Texas Association of Business, Texas Association of Builders (homebuilders) and others who had really never gotten with us in the trenches as they did this time. We will be counting on them again next year for a successful campaign for the amendment election.

Of course, our long time and proven steadfast friends were there in droves: West Houston Association, Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Region, Greater Houston Partnership, Dallas Regional Chamber and North Dallas Chamber of Commerce, Transportation Advocates of Texas, Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, Ports-to-Plains, Dallas Regional Mobility Coalition, I-69 Coalition, Austin Chamber of Commerce, Dallas Citizens Council, Texas Transportation Alliance, Consulting Engineers of Texas, Rio Grande Chamber of Commerce, Texas Motor Transportation Association, and other urban and rural county groups. All of these were invaluable in this battle. None was as important as those individuals involved with the highway community, who made hundreds of calls and otherwise communicated with their elected officials and made victory possible.

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