Vianna Davila | The San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO — A renewed focus on the state’s transportation needs gained more steam Wednesday as House Speaker Joe Straus called for an end to the longstanding practice of diverting money from the state highway fund in order to redirect it to other agencies.
The proposal would retain $1.3 billion for transportation, potentially ending years of consternation about the use of gas taxes, motor vehicle registration fees and other sources that replenish the highway fund for other purposes.
The Texas Department of Public Safety receives the highest percentage of diverted dollars, amounting to $812.6 million in 2014 and 2015. Other recipients include the State Office of Administrative Hearings and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
With legislators having little to no appetite to raise the gas tax, which has remained at 20 cents for more than two decades, ending diversions could free up substantial sums for infrastructure without incurring new fees, supporters of the proposal said.
“It’s significant news,” said Vic Boyer, president and CEO of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, which for years has recommended ending diversions. “We’ll want to get behind it and support it.”
Most of the money for the state highway fund stays there — about 83 percent of what comes in from gas taxes and other fees, or just over $9 billion, is allocated to the Texas Department of Transportation in the 2014-2015 biennium, according to the state Legislative Budget Board.
But $1.23 billion of state highway funds was handed to the other agencies in this biennium. That’s not counting an $86 million pay raise for DPS troopers, Straus spokeswoman Erin Daly said.
“This approach will make the state budget even more straightforward, just as taxpayers expect,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said in an emailed statement. “It will also provide needed transportation revenue — without a tax increase.”
Cathie Adams, president of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum, said she welcomes the move by the speaker, although her organization regularly takes aim at Straus for being too moderate.
“I think it is about time that we stopped diversions from the highway fund,” Adams said. “That should have been done at least two or three (legislative) sessions ago. So he’s (Straus) a little slow on the uptake, but we will welcome it.”
This latest pitch on how to address transportation funding comes as state officials are gearing up a campaign to pass a constitutional amendment in November that, if enacted, would siphon some gas and oil severance tax revenue from the state’s rainy day fund and dedicate it to new road projects and road maintenance, potentially yielding an additional $1.4 billion for transportation in the first year.
If the amendment passes, the question is whether transportation will become a priority during the 2015 legislative session.
A lot will depend on who’s in charge, said Don Durden, the local mobility coalition chairman. A new governor will oversee the next session, and the lieutenant governor’s position is up in the air as incumbent David Dewhurst faces a fierce re-election battle against Sen. Dan Patrick.
Whoever wins those races will determine “how prominently this will play out in the next session,” Durden said.
But Straus’ proposal signaled to Brandon James, board chairman of Transportation Advocates of Texas, that the speaker will take a bigger role in leading the charge for more funding.
Water was the big issue last session, James said, and “transportation is going to be important next time.”
Straus said the “continued strong performance of the Texas economy” will ensure that DPS and the other agencies continue to receive funding, calling public safety and mobility “top priorities.”
In response to a question about Straus’ announcement, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said in an email that “the department does not take a position on legislative proposals.”
Long term, James cautioned that ending diversions and passing the constitutional amendment will only partly address the state’s transportation needs.
TxDOT’s annual wish list amounts to $5 billion: $1 billion for recurring maintenance, $3 billion for mobility and $1 billion for repairs in areas where roads have been damaged by increased energy sector activity.