Empty pockets and California dreaming down in Austin

Posted Thursday, Aug. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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norman Back for a third special session and their fourth attempt this year to fund the state’s large and growing transportation needs, the men and women of the Texas Legislature are exploring some new options.

• There’s the Empty Our Pockets and Go Home Plan, aka House Bill 2, proposed by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview.

HB2, less than a page in length, would allocate $630 million over the next two years to the Texas Department of Transportation. It’s money that was not appropriated in the 2014-15 budget approved by the Legislature during its January-May regular session this year.

Compared with the $94.6 billion that was appropriated from the General Fund for that budget, it’s chicken feed. Compared with the $4 billion a year the transportation department says it needs to just keep roadway congestion from getting worse, it’s pocket change.

But it’s $630 million, $315 million a year. (It’s also a sign of special-session weariness and frustration, but more on that in a moment.)

• There’s the California Plan, House Bill 3, chiefly authored by Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, and its variant, House Bill 4, by Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana.

The California Plan gets its name from the housing market in California circa 2007, in the heyday of what has been called subprime lending. That’s not to say it calls for borrowing money we can’t pay back, because it doesn’t.

It calls for promising the transportation department money that we don’t have and can’t really guess we’ll get, but we hope, hope, hope we might. Those subprime California home buyers hoped and hoped they’d earn more money or could turn around and sell their homes for a profit.

In this case, transportation funding would come from whatever tax income the state would receive in future years that’s above what the comptroller conservatively estimated we would get. If the comptroller gazes out two years into the future and guesses that a certain tax would bring in $100 million, but it ends up bringing in $110 million, that’s $10 million extra to be spent on roads.

When the comptroller says “oops,” it’s not so bad, because we have a place for the extra money to go.

• There’s the Same-old, Same-old Plan. This one was actually approved by the Senate on Tuesday, the first day of this third special session, but it’s also the one that failed to pass the House on Monday, the next-to-last day of the second special session (yes, Tuesday was the last of the second and first of the third, if you’re counting days and special sessions).

There’s a changed version of the old measure, House Joint Resolution 1, filed by Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, in hopes that previously reluctant House members can be won over.

We’re now into August, and the Legislature has been meeting in regular or special session since January. Part of what we are seeing is the wisdom of whoever wrote it into the Texas Constitution in the first place that the Legislature should meet for just 140 days every other year.

We’re also seeing either steely determination or just plain stubbornness from Gov. Rick Perry. He’s hell-bent on calling special sessions until the transportation funding problem gets some sort of solution.

The governor has another option. He could add a topic or two to the special session agenda. Currently, with transportation funding the only thing on the list, lawmakers are limited in their bargaining options.

I’m not a fan of adding to the special session topics. I’m just saying adding something like tuition revenue bonds for higher education construction might give some room for horse trading.

Other people want to see consideration of allowing holders of concealed handgun permits to bring their guns on college campuses. I don’t like it, but it might provide opportunities for legislative bargaining.

Somehow the dynamic has to change so our senators and representatives can wrap things up and go home.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9

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