The perennial anti-tax mood of the Texas Legislature sliced, diced and finally dropped North Texas leaders’ determined 2009 effort that eventually, under certain circumstances, could have led to more funding for local transportation projects.This year, it turns out, the prevailing mood on similar legislation was only against new taxes for Republicans. Democrats are another matter.As of Sept. 1, certain counties, all majority Democrat, are allowed to require residents to pay an extra $10 on their motor vehicle registration fees, with the money going to transportation projects.County commissioners in Bexar (San Antonio), El Paso and Webb (Laredo) counties have approved the fee beginning Jan. 1. Cameron (Brownsville) and Hidalgo (Edinburg) counties already were authorized to collect the additional money on vehicle registrations.The rest of us, especially those of us who live in predominantly Republican counties, don’t have to worry about the additional fee. We can drive on toll roads.And we can vote next year on a constitutional amendment that will divert some current oil and gas tax revenue that was going into the state’s rainy-day fund savings account, giving about $1.2 billion a year to the Texas Department of Transportation. That’s a lot of money, but it’s well short of the $4 billion a year Transportation Department officials have told lawmakers they need just to maintain current congestion levels as Texas continues to draw new residents.Back in 2009, the anti-tax mood even trumped the local-control, back-off-big-government mood.North Texas leaders, backed by editorial page support from the Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News, spent five years researching transportation needs of the region’s then 6 million residents, headed for an anticipated 9 million in the next couple of decades.The focus was on creating what eventually would be a 251-mile, seamless passenger rail network to serve the booming base of commuters.Those leaders settled on a package of potential transportation-related revenue sources ranging from additional gasoline taxes, driver’s license fees and parking fees to a “new resident impact fee” and a “mobility improvement fee.”The array of choices proved to be a key weakness when the proposal reached the Legislature, much too complicated to sell to an already reluctant audience. Before the bill eventually died in what turned out to be unusually chaotic end-of-session chaos (owing to a battle royale over voter ID legislation), the options were trimmed down to just a local gasoline tax surcharge.But the key word was option. The bill didn’t ask the Legislature to authorize new revenue. It asked lawmakers to allow local residents to vote on whether they wanted the option of raising new money for specific transportation projects.Well, it didn’t fly, and that’s that. There was some talk about trying again in the 2011 legislative session, but it didn’t amount to much.But those few predominantly Democratic counties came back this year asking to tack an extra $10 on vehicle registrations, and the idea passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate. There were actually two bills, one specifically focused on Bexar County. San Antonio and its in-county surrounding areas include more than 1.5 million residents, so millions of dollars in annual revenue could come from the $10 fee.To be fair, some Republicans voted against it, including local Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, Charlie Geren, Matt Krause, Jonathan Stickland and Bill Zedler, as well as Sens. Brian Birdwell, Kelly Hancock and Jane Nelson.The kicker is that voters in the affected counties don’t even get a say about what they’ll pay. County commissioners decide for them.It’s all spilled milk now — except for that constitutional amendment vote next year and the fact that, if the Transportation Department estimate is correct, Texas still needs another $3 billion a year if its residents are to maintain mobility.That’s for Republicans and Democrats alike.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9