House Speaker Joe Straus

Speaker Straus takes questions from TAoT on transportation funding.

 

 

Straus: Highway Funds Should Go to Highways

 

May 31, 2014

 

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus met with members of the Transportation Advocates of Texas this week and pledged to do what he can to get more state funding for highways.


He voiced support for the Prop. 1 Highway Funding Amendment that will ask voters in November to dedicate part of the state’s oil and gas production tax revenues to the State Highway Fund (Fund 6).  If approved it is projected to mean about $1.4 billion annually for roads.


Straus repeated an earlier policy initiative saying the House of Representatives will propose a budget in January that uses all of the money in the State Highway Fund for transportation.  He said Texans have a right to expect transportation related tax revenues to be used to pay for transportation.

 

ENDING FUND 6 DIVERSIONS


An end to fund diversions to other agencies such as the Department of Public Safety will mean about $650 million more each year for highways.  This amount is about 10% of the annual $5 billion to $8 billion highway funding gap now facing the state.


Straus told TAoT board members and guests that the importance of ending diversions from the highway fund is transparency and accountability to taxpayers.


But he also said that part of the intent is to eliminate an excuse often used by those who are unwilling to face the state’s highway funding crisis.


“This will take an argument off the table that has been an argument of convenience by people who really don’t want to help.  It is convenient for them to say that we have these diversions,” he said.


The Speaker said that once the diversion question is settled it will be up to transportation advocates statewide to challenge those who prefer to ignore more funding is needed to meet the needs of a state that is growing at twice  the pace of the rest of the country.  “That is work you will have to help with,” he said.


“I am here to be helpful,” Straus said.  “I want to join with you in any way that we can.  I want you to know that the Texas House will continue to be advocates for finding solutions to the problems that are created by success in this state – economic growth, population growth – and we have got to face up to them to be honest about it.  I pledge to you that the leadership of the Texas House will continue to talk about the things that truly do really matter.”


PROPOSITION 1
The Speaker said he believes the voters will approve the constitutional amendment later this year.

 
“But what I also think we have to guard against this feeling that once that hurdle is cleared that we have solved this problem.  I hope you will help me in reminding people that that is not the case,” he said.


He repeated his concerns from 2013 about the sustainability of funding tied to the energy sector.  He said it is important to acknowledge that he believes that being dependent on volatile energy prices can be problematic for the long term.  “Prices will go up and prices will go down.  They always do.  I don’t want transportation funding to be dependent on that.  It is not a perfect solution but it is the best one we came up with.”  He pledged his support for the amendment.


Straus said the current environment is an excellent time to take a broad look at restructuring the way transportation is funded and that he believes the House Select Committee headed by Rep. Joe Pickett  will produce some strong recommendations.


Asked about other funding options he said, “You may take some clues from the Pickett Committee.  They will do a thorough review of all the options.  I think they will come up with some good ideas.  I am not going to endorse any one approach at this point.  I do think the ending of the diversion issue is a significant step forward  -- that added to a resounding victory in November.  It is a pretty big step forward.  The good news is that at least right now it appears the state will be in pretty strong fiscal shape, which is not always the case let me tell you.  I don’t want to get ahead of the Pickett Committee.”


He said this is a very opportune time to deal with diversions and promised that the DPS and other agencies will be adequately funded.  “If we don’t take this opportunity to do it, it may be a long time before we get another chance.”


The Speaker indicated that the end to diversions will not  affect the 25% of the motor fuels tax revenues that the Texas Constitution dedicates for public education.  That would require another constitutional amendment which would have to get a two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature before going to voters.

 

Straus called on the member organizations of TAoT statewide to help win highway funding support from lawmakers in the 2015 session.