Voters to get say on transit funds

The Legislature voted Saturday to ask the state's voters in November to approve a plan to boost annual transportation funding by billions of dollars.

The House passed Senate Joint Resolution 5 by a vote of 142-1. Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, was the only "no" vote. The Senate approved the resolution earlier in the day. The measure will now be added to the Nov. 3 ballot.

“Not everybody gets everything that they wanted,” House Transportation Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, told the House before the vote. “But I think we have a really good mixture of what we can proudly vote for and ask the public for their support.”

Under the transportation funding deal reached by Pickett and Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, Texans will be asked to amend the state constitution to dedicate $2.5 billion of the general sales tax to the highway fund beginning in 2017 — as well as a portion of future motor vehicle sales taxes beginning in 2019.

Both funding streams will have triggers attached in case of downswings in the state economy. The general sales tax revenue dedication could be halted if sales tax revenue comes in lower than about $28 billion in a fiscal year, which is around what the state collects today, Pickett said.

The motor vehicle sales tax dedication is more complex. Under that deal, the state will transfer 35 percent of the growth of that revenue stream beyond $5 billion beginning in 2020.

Texans pay a 6.25 percent state sales tax on automobiles. As it stands, all of the vehicle sales tax collected, about $4 billion annually, goes into the state's all-purpose general revenue fund.

For years, the Texas Department of Transportation has warned lawmakers that its funding is several billion dollars below what it needs to maintain current levels of congestion in a fast-growing state.

This will be the second November election in a row in which Texas voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment that increases transportation funding. Last November, voters approved Proposition 1, which dedicates some of the tax revenue being collected from the oil boom to road construction and maintenance. This session, budget writers allocated $2.5 billion from funds raised through Proposition 1. They also boosted the Transportation Department’s budget by ending about $1.3 billion in so-called diversions, in which gas tax money was going to pay for items other than road construction and maintenance, primarily the Department of Public Safety.

The transportation funding deal between Pickett and Nichols originally included another bill, Pickett's House Bill 13. In the Senate on Thursday evening, Nichols allowed state Sen. Bob Hall to add an amendment to the bill that would ban cities from using red-light cameras. While such a ban had previously passed the Senate, it faced more opposition in the House. Pickett said he had no plans to allow the ban to stay in the bill.