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OPINION: State Capital Highlights: Senate panel passes legislation to fund state highways

AUSTIN — The Senate Transportation Committee on Feb. 25 tentatively approved two pieces of legislation that would take a portion of various motor vehicle related taxes and dedicate that money to road and bridge construction and maintenance. 

Senate Bill 5, enabling legislation, and Senate Joint Resolution 5, which would put a constitutional amendment on the November statewide ballot, are meant to help cover the shortfall in the state highway funding program. According to Senate documents, the two measures work together to dedicate a portion of the motor vehicle sales tax and other taxes associated with vehicle use, but not the gas tax, to TxDOT so the agency “can reasonably predict and plan projects six to 10 years into the future, to replace congestion and to preserve our system.”

The state comptroller would be required at the beginning of each fiscal year to deposit to the credit of the state highway fund all money that comes from sources identified in the legislation.

SB 5 and SJR 5 are authored by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. Signed as coauthors are Sens. Birdwell, Campbell, Fraser, Hall, Hancock, Huffines, Huffman, Kolkhorst, Lucio Jr., Seliger, Taylor of Collin and Zaffirini.

In each fiscal year beginning Sept. 1, 2017, the legislation as currently written would dedicate to general revenue the first $2.5 billion in revenues from existing sales tax on new and used vehicles and exiting rental tax on vehicles, according to the official analysis of the bills.

The second $2.5 billion would be dedicated to the State Highway Fund with the restriction that it could only be appropriated to construct, maintain, or acquire rights-of ways for public roadways other than toll roads.  Those funds also be used to repay Proposition 12 bonds that currently are paid with general revenues funds, which cost about $335 million per year. 

Furthermore, “Any additional revenue in the same fiscal year that is collected above the $2.5 billion for general revenue and the $2.5 billion for the State Highway Fund would be divided equally between these two funds.”

“TxDOT has to know, six, eight, 10 years out what they’re going to have or they cannot even begin design work,” Chairman Nichols said. “It’s extremely important.”

Intent to fund is expressed

During the Feb. 25 session of the Texas House, state Rep. John Otto expressed the body’s intention to “fully fund” TRS-Care — the health care plan of retired teachers and their dependents — a group numbering more than 230,000 people.

Otto, R-Dayton, who chairs the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, made the announcement on the House floor. The chamber erupted in hurrahs. The estimated cost of fully funding the health care plan for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 is more than three-quarters of a billion dollars.

After Otto spoke, Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, made a statement challenging the Senate to do likewise by passing legislation to fully fund TRS-Care.

Tax repeals are sought

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Feb. 26 announced he is working with the state House and Senate to repeal nine state taxes during the 2015 legislative session.

Targeted for repeal are: the inheritance tax, the airline and passenger train beverage tax, the liquefied gas tax, the combative sports admissions tax, the bingo rental tax, the fireworks tax, the oil regulation tax, the sulphur tax and the controlled substance tax certificates.

Hegar said, “The resources needed to administer these tax laws should be redeployed to ensure Texans are getting the best possible government at the lowest possible cost, rather than maintaining red tape and regulation unnecessarily burdening business owners.”

Van de Putte leaves Senate

After more than 24 years as a member of the Texas Legislature, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte worked her last day for San Antonio’s Senate District 26 on Feb. 24.

Van de Putte, who resigned to run for mayor of San Antonio, is succeeded by José Menéndez, a state representative who won the runoff election that pitted him against fellow state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer. 

Van de Putte, a pharmacist by trade, served as a member of the Texas House from 1990 to 1999 and as a member of the Senate since 1999. Menéndez was first elected to the House in 2000 and was in his seventh consecutive term as a House member before moving to the Senate.

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