Transportation funding last roadblock to session end

Gov. Rick Perry signed into law some of the strictest abortion regulations in the nation July 18, ending weeks of emotional protest and national debate over the issue.

Now with time running out on the second special session—set to end July 30—attention is focused on state transportation funding, and Perry told lawmakers at the abortion bill signing that he would love to see them go home and be with their families.

"As soon as you get a transportation bill on my desk," he told lawmakers who are still haggling over how to fund Texas highways.

Lawmakers have spent their summer in Austin in two special sessions called to deal with transportation funding, abortion, redistricting and closing a loophole in the juvenile justice system.

In the first called special session that began May 27, lawmakers managed to approve the state's interim redistricting maps before the session came to a standstill in its final hours over an anti-abortion bill that eventually failed.

But the second session, which began July 1, has progressed much differently. Lawmakers have made significant progress on all of Perry's agenda items and have passed two of the three.

Transportation funding moves slowly

The House and Senate are spending most of the session's final full week negotiating a way to fund Texas roads in the future.

Texas Department of Transportation officials have said the state is in a funding crisis and must find $4 billion per year in additional funding just for the agency to maintain current roadways.

Lawmakers could not come to a deal during the regular session and missed their chance in the first special session when the abortion debate killed all other proposals.

The House and Senate have championed different approaches but have found some common ground by passing a constitutional amendment that asks voters for permission to divert some of the state's oil and gas revenue—currently earmarked for the Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the rainy day fund—toward maintenance and construction of roads.

Among the aspects on which lawmakers cannot agree is whether to impose a "floor" on the balance of the rainy day fund—such as a minimum balance of $6 billion as proposed by the Senate.

Additionally, the House favors a bill that would earmark some of the state's motor fuel taxes for roads and construction. That money currently goes to public education. Diverting those funds would create a gap that has concerned some lawmakers.

The Senate Committee on Transportation has scheduled a public hearing on that bill for July 25.

Perry's veiled threat for a third special session if no deal is reached indicates that he will not allow lawmakers to wait until the next regular session in 2015 to solve the issue. Lawmakers said they hope to have the funding issue resolved before the deadline.

"These are challenges that need to be addressed," said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation. "And I'm thankful that Gov. Perry has asked us to address this now instead of two years from now, when it will be too late."

Abortion restrictions

Abortion dominated the first half of the current special session, but the thousands of demonstrators on both sides of the debate did little to slow movement on the bill during the second session.

After hours of testimony from thousands of witnesses in the House and Senate, both chambers passed legislation that bans abortions after 20 weeks and requires all abortions to be performed in ambulatory surgery centers.

"For all of you who stood up and made a difference, no one will ever have to ask, 'Where were you when babies' lives were being saved?'" Perry said during the bill-signing ceremony July 18 in an auditorium at the Capitol.

Opponents say the measure risks the closure of nearly all the state's abortion clinics and erodes a woman's constitutional right to govern her own body. Supporters say it increases safety standards and protects unborn children.

Juvenile justice

Lawmakers have also passed a measure that closes a loophole in a state law that left the justice system unable to sentence 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.

Those teens are considered adults by the justice system and are tried as adults, but the U.S. Supreme Court has held that offenders younger than 18 may not receive a sentence of death or life without parole—the only two punishments possible for adults convicted of capital offenses in Texas.

A bill sent to the governor July 15 created the punishment of life with the possibility of parole for those offenders, bringing Texas into compliance with court rulings.

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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