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Is Third Special Session the Charm for Texas Transportation Funding?

A new transportation working group has reconvened to find a way to connect regional mass transit lines in Central Texas that include highway managed lanes and rail lines.
Daniel Reese
A new transportation working group has reconvened to find a way to connect regional mass transit lines in Central Texas that include highway managed lanes and rail lines.

By the time the Texas Legislature's second special session of the year ended yesterday, the House still couldn’t get to a deal that would add more funding for road and highway projects. But a similar measure is back on the table as the third special session is already underway. 

Gov. Rick Perry called members back for a third special session almost immediately yesterday to try yet again and resolve the gridlock on a plan to add more than 800 million dollars for the state's highway fund. 

House Speaker Joe Straus said he agreed members should pick up right away.

"The suggestion that I made was that we should come right back in and get the process started," Speaker Straus said. "No promises that we’re gonna find a solution but let’s keep working and be responsible and serious about it and see where we go."

Both chambers have already filed legislation similar to what failed to pass the House just two days ago. They've done so just to get the process started. 

These measures would take oil and gas tax revenues from the state’s emergency bank account – known as the Rainy Day Fund. Almost $1 billion dollars from there would go into the state highway fund.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is the author of a transportation measure already filed in the third special session.

"There may be other ideas, we already heard other things that may make it even better," he said. "We’d like that opportunity to work with House members in the working groups to see if we could make it even better than before."

Sen. Nichols says most members overwhelmingly agree on transferring money from the Rainy Day Fund to transportation as a temporary solution. And to cap that flow when necessary.

"The terminology of the word floor, trigger, moving the spicket, swinging the funds...everybody has a different vision in their minds for what that is," Nichols said. "But very simply, you need a mechanism for shutting off that flow to transportation when we get into a crisis where economically we need to draw deep down in there."

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said the best fix would come from elsewhere, though he prefaced his idea with the acknowledgment that this wouldn't bode well with most at the Legislature. "We need to have an income tax such that we have a fairer tax system, such that we don’t have so much dependency on the property tax, we don’t have such a high sales tax, and we can generate more money from the truly wealthy," Rep. Burnam said.

And State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin also has a suggestion. She said the state has "$600 and some-odd million left under the spending cap in general revenue that could be appropriated to this. So we have some options that could take us to the next session."

The Texas Department of Transportation updated the amount it needs to maintain current traffic congestion levels last week. It now needs an extra $5 billion a year to maintain current conditions. In order to spend any money from the Rainy Day Fund to help roads and highways, a two-thirds vote from both chambers is required. Leaders now have a little more than 30-days to come to an agreement. Voters would have to approve whatever deal they might achieve.