North East Texas State Senator Kevin Eltife

 

 

 

 

 

East Texas Leaders Sound Highway Funding Alarm

 

August 26, 2014

 

State Senator Kevin Eltife of Tyler told a Longview audience last week that member of the Legislature should stop running up debt to pay for highway projects. The senator represents District 1 which includes 16 counties in North East Texas.

 

He said the Legislature’s approach to funding transportation infrastructure in recent years has been a disaster.  Lawmakers have elected to borrow money to pay for highway construction and preservation rather than facing up to the need for new revenue.

 

Eltife - the former mayor of Tyler - repeated remarks he has made in past years, arguing that the state should have raised taxes 10 years ago and returned to the “pay-as-you-go” system of highway finance that made Texas highways the envy of the nation for so many years.

 

Glenn Evans of the Longview News-Journal reported Eltife’s remarks along with those of Texas Transportation Commission Member Jeff Austin III and Scott Haywood who represented Move Texas Forward, one of the organizations urging voters to support Prop 1, the highway funding amendment on the November election ballot.

 

Commissioner Austin told the Longview Chamber of Commerce audience that the state transportation system is in trouble.  “We need money,” he said, noting that Texas’ population has grown 125 percent in the past four decades and road use has increased 200 percent. Meanwhile, the capacity of the state’s highway network has grown 10 percent. 

 

Austin emphasized that Prop 1 does not raise taxes – it allows voters to dedicate a portion of existing oil and natural gas production taxes exclusively to the State Highway Fund and it prohibits any of this revenue from being used on toll projects.

 

ELTIFE COMMENTS TO EDITORIAL BOARD

In a meeting with the News-Journal Editorial Board, Sen. Eltife went further in expressing his distress with members of the Legislature.  He said he has been looking for a conservative philosophy in Austin for a decade but what he has found is that the state’s debt has nearly tripled while fundamental challenges go unmet.

 

 “Water’s not fixed, TxDOT’s not fixed,” he said, naming two of the issues he accused his fellow lawmakers of ignoring in favor of red-meat topics that get them elected while the necessities of a growing population draw mostly lip-service.

 

“We’ve got the same problems today,” Eltife said returning several times to a state debt that’s risen from $17 billion, when he took office in 2004, to $42 billion now. Much of that debt growth has occurred because lawmakers opted to have the Texas Department of Transportation borrow money.

 

“It’s real easy to run on, ‘We just need to cut spending, and we don’t need any new taxes,’ ” he said. “At some point, the public is going to demand that we fix these problems.”

 

Eltife did not sound optimistic his party’s Republican leadership or rank-and-file newcomers will treat the coming 140-day session any differently than previous ones. He said he understands newcomers running on promises of not raising taxes, but meanwhile highways are being built on borrowed money by private companies recovering their investments with tolls.


“I’m not against toll roads; I’m against the way we’ve done toll roads,” he said. “The state should own the toll roads.” Once tolls recoup the costs of construction, he said, they should either be stopped or the revenue forwarded to future road-building.

 

“If we’re so conservative, why are we doubling our debt?” Eltife asked. “You have to have leadership that lays out the problem and lays out the solutions. When you have leadership that is constantly running for higher office, you don’t address the problem. They are all running on ‘immigration.’ Who is running on water and TxDOT?”

 

He returned to a refrain that stable, new revenue sources are needed to meet the needs of a growing state. He doesn’t care what those might be and is eager to discuss amending the gasoline tax, vehicle sales tax, user fees, other avenues that could return Texas to its former pay-as-you-go practices.

 

“When I talk to groups — even the tea party groups — when I talk to groups and lay out the debt we’ve incurred ... Would you rather have increased the gas tax 10 cents 10 years ago? The answer is overwhelmingly, ‘Yes. The gas tax.’ Your answer to water and TxDOT are not more cuts. We ought to be proud that we have a growing state and the needs are there,” he told the Editorial Board.