Lawmakers revisit transportation funding in third special session

Lawmakers ended their second special session of the summer July 30, only to be called back that evening for a third session after the House and Senate could not agree on a way to fund the state's highways.

"When it comes to transportation, the stakes facing our state could not be higher, and a failure to act now could take years—if not most of a decade—to correct, as traffic congestion increases and harms our quality of life," Gov. Rick Perry said in his statement announcing the new session. "Inaction is a Washington-style attempt to kick a can down the road—but everybody in Texas knows we're rapidly running out of roads to kick that can down."

Texas transportation officials have said the agency needs an additional $4 billion per year just to maintain the current highway system; that funding would not include a way to pay for additional projects.

Leaders in the House and Senate said July 26 that they had a deal they could agree on: Asking voters to allow them to divert a portion of the money from oil and gas revenues—all of which is currently earmarked for the state's rainy day fund—to transportation.

The deal was not as solid as negotiators had described.

The bill died in the House on July 29 when a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers rejected part of the compromise that would have allowed the Legislative Budget Board to set a minimum balance for the rainy day fund before each session.

Democrats objected to the measure because they feared it could be used to justify cuts in human services or education spending in favor of transportation dollars or refilling the fund.

Conservatives wanted to let the state's voters decide any time the lawmakers wanted to take the balance below a floor of $6 billion.

Because the bill proposed a constitutional amendment, it required approval of a two-thirds majority of representatives. The lack of support on both sides of the aisle cost the measure the 100 votes it needed to pass the House, and the bill died on a vote of 84-40.

Transportation only

For the third special session, Perry has called lawmakers back strictly to deal with transportation legislation. He can add new subjects to the agenda at any time during the special session.

Republicans have called on Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, to foot the bill for the special sessions because it was her filibuster of abortion restrictions at the end of the first special session in June that ran out the clock on reaching a transportation deal.

The abortion issue then took two weeks of the second session, for which Davis is also being blamed.

But Davis said Tuesday that the failure of lawmakers to pass transportation funding plan is simply due to a failure of leadership.

"Our work could have been done and our money saved had Texas leaders put the concerns of Texas families ahead of their own selfish partisan agendas," Davis said. "Republican leaders have ignored their responsibility to address critical infrastructure issues facing Texas for more than a decade and now they expect taxpayers to foot the bill."

Special session cost

At a cost of about $30,000 per day, a 30-day special session can cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

The price includes $150 per diem for each lawmaker for food and living expenses in Austin, though a handful choose not to take the pay when they are not in Austin for session work.

A special session can only be called by the governor and cannot last more than 30 days.
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