“Sooner or later, serious policy-makers have to take control,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said earlier this month. “I think they will, but I don’t know when.”
The latest, best hope is a bill filed Tuesday by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that would take excess oil production tax revenues and direct them at paying down the state’s road bond debt.
Williams estimated that could mean an additional $700 to $800 million annually for transportation.
To fund existing repair and improvement needs, the Texas Department of Transportation has estimated it needs an additional $4 billion for the two-year budget cycle.
“Major transportation funding is one of the things that, unfortunately, did not happen during the regular session,” Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond, said. “Without these new projects we risk our economic edge in attracting new investment, jobs and business to this state.”
The state gasoline tax has remained unchanged at 20 cents for 22 years. Lawmakers came to Austin with some funding ideas, from tax increases to higher vehicle registration fees. None gained enough traction to overcome ideological opposition to anything that took money from Texans and gave it to the government.
I presume that last sentence is intended to capture the perspective of the rabid anti-spending crowd, but it’s so jarring that I can’t help but marvel at it. Would anyone characterize a visit to the grocery store as “taking money from Texans and giving it to Charles Butt and Randall Onstead”? If the need to pay for roads and road repair is that disconnected from the gas tax, then I don’t even know what to say. It is always amusing to see another helpless quote from Bill Hammond, as if he were an innocent victim of this breakdown in policy instead of an enabler of it. It’s the same dynamic as the anti-immigrant hysteria of the past couple of sessions that finally got tamped down this year after the politics of it became too untenable for the Republicans. It’s well within Bill Hammond’s power to support candidates in Republican primaries that will work to actually solve these problems, and to oppose the candidates that actively work against solving them. I’d be happy to suggest a few legislators to target in 2014 if that would be helpful to Hammond. This isn’t rocket science.
“I think we all know something is going to give,” said Carol Brace, director of the Center for Logistics and Transportation Policy at UH. “But I feel for them. They are struggling just as we all are to figure it out.”
Emmett said the biggest challenge is overcoming a segment of lawmakers who recognize the need for transportation spending, but oppose any proposal to raise the money. Part of their reluctance, he said, is fear they will get hammered in the next election for raising taxes or fees.
Well, I don’t feel for them, because even the Republicans that are trying to solve this problem in the Legislature have helped to make it so difficult to do by their own anti-tax and anti-spending rhetoric over the years. If we’d been properly maintaining the gas tax all this time and were coming to a point diminishing returns and were now engaged in a debate about how to transition from the gas tax to something that would be more sustainable for growth in the long term, that would be one thing. But everyone knows that the gas tax is still viable, and would largely take care of our transportation needs for years to come if we dealt with it. Hammond, for all his feigned cluelessness, put his finger right on the message to overcome this quagmire, that opposing any and all new revenues to fix the state’s transportation problems – and yes, this includes raising the gas tax and indexing it to the cost of construction – is anti-business. No one wants to be accused of that in a Republican primary. The Republicans created this dilemma for themselves, they can fix it for themselves.