Texas Voters to Decide on Highway Funds

Written by  Lawrence Olsen, Executive Vice President, Texas Good Roads

When Texans trudge to the polls on November 4th to pick the new governor (for the first time in a record 14-plus years), these same voters will also determine whether the state highway fund will receive a billion-dollar a year boost, thanks to the robust nature of the state's energy sector.

Since its 1876 adoption, the state constitution has been amended by voters 483 times; another 179 proposed amendments to the state's basic document have been rejected by the voters. Recall that the state government wrote this original document in the aftermath of a bitter period of post-Civil War reconstruction rule in Texas. The Lone Star state had joined its 10 sister states in the Confederate States of America and lost the big one to the boys in blue. With its recent escape from the yoke of the Reconstruction era, Texas officialdom was in no mood to give government (including itself) unfettered powers. Accordingly, the state constitution was, as with most other southern states, a very restrictive document. These restrictions included the powers granted to the chief executive, the governor. Through his consummate political skills and longevity, Governor Perry has expanded the power of his governorship. Remember that it is only since 1974 that the governor and other statewide officials terms were expanded from two to four years.

Most of the proposed amendments to the constitution are authorized for the ballot in the same year as the legislative session, i.e., a non-general election year. Last November, nine amendments were on the ballot and each was approved. The vote total was 1.1 million, about six percent of registered voters. The key amendment was the authorization of $2 billion from the Economic Stabilization Fund to underwrite water projects. But the amendment to add money from the excess oil and gas severance taxes to the highway fund was sanctioned for a vote this fall. That means the turnout will increase from November 2013 by about five fold.

Interestingly, two of the most vital parts of the state highway fund, the original Good Roads Amendment and the clarification of dedication of federal-aid highway funds, both came in the heavy vote years, 1946 and 1988. The first amendment put in the constitution what had long been in statute (dedication of the motor fuels tax on 75/25 basis between the highway fund and the available school fund and the dedication of the motor vehicle registration fees to the highway fund, with a portion retained by the counties). This amendment passed with 80 percent of the vote on November 5, 1946.

In November 1988, 87 percent of Texans approved an amendment that many longtime observers never thought was a question until raised by a handful of legislators in the 1987 session. In an effort to resist attempts to increase revenues (this was a time where the price of oil was less than $10 a barrel), a handful of legislators and some officials in Governor Bill Clements’ administration, asked the Federal Highway Administration whether the monies that came from federal-aid highway program could be diverted to general revenue, thereby lessening the need for increased revenues.

When a reply from an FHWA official said that the state could use the money for any purpose it saw fit, Highway Commission Chairman Bob Lanier asked Senate and House leaders to adopt a proposed constitutional amendment to make certain that federal highway reimbursements went only to the state highway fund. The Senate passed the proposed amendment unanimously, and the House passed it by a vote of 132-12. Former Commission Chairman Lanier (who resigned in 1987) and Chairman Bob Dedman spearheaded the very successful 1988 campaign.

Since that 1988 vote, Texas voters have been asked several other times to approve highway-related matters, such as the creation of the Texas Mobility Fund, building roads in colonias, issue debt collateralized by the highway fund and to issue general obligation debt ($5 billion) to build highways. Voters have approved all of these amendments when given an opportunity. The low-water mark for any of these votes was 63 percent in 2007 on the $5 billion debt. That came amidst the controversy spawned by the proposed (and later abandoned) Trans-Texas Corridor project.

Senator Robert Nichols, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, authored the constitutional amendment to be considered this November. He and his colleagues have pledged strong support and effort to see this ballot proposal pass. Numerous House leaders, such as Speaker Joe Straus, and Representatives Joe Pickett, Drew Darby, Larry Phillips and scores of others have pledged similar support. But each of these leaders has repeatedly noted that this amendment is only a good first step. TxDOT has quantified that its annual shortfall is $4 to $5 billion annually to maintain the system pretty much as it is. Texas Good Roads will be working with numerous allies, some of which have focused recently on highways’ importance to Texas' growth, to spread the word about the vital necessity of more investment.

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