August 13, 2013
A regular legislative session in Texas lasts 140 days. The last one of those ended on May 27.
And then the Governor started calling special sessions. By the time the third one of those wrapped up last week, the regular session had been over for 70 days.
That means we were in special sessions for about half as long as we were in a regular one. That’s nearly 14 innings of baseball, just shy of five NBA overtimes.
And what do the people of Texas have to show for it?
The transportation funding bill was the reason the Governor called us in for the third ever-so-special session.
It’s very similar to the bill that we were ready to pass at the end of the first called session, but that the Lieutenant Governor refused to bring up for a vote. Had the Senate been allowed to vote on that measure back in June, we would’ve avoided this last special session.
And the legislation we passed is very, very similar to the measures that those in control of the legislature, for whatever reason, couldn’t pass during the second special session.
By the way, it’s estimated that these special sessions cost taxpayers more than $1.6 million. Time may not fly when you’re not having fun, but the money sure seems to.
So let’s talk about what did pass last week.
In November 2014, the state will ask voters to approve several hundred million dollars for transportation funding.
If voters sign off, a portion of the oil and gas tax revenues currently going into the state’s Rainy Day Fund would instead be split 50-50, with half continuing to go into the Rainy Day Fund, and the other half going into the State Highway Fund.
It’s estimated that transportation would get an additional $878 million out of this deal in the first year.
The legislation also requires the legislature (working through a newly created 10-member select committee) to set a minimum balance for the Rainy Day Fund based on a calculation of how much savings the state might need to protect itself fiscally. If the fund’s balance falls below that amount, then all of the oil and gas tax revenues that currently go into the Rainy Day Fund would continue to go into that savings account, not the highway fund.
Also, the bill puts the Department of Transportation under orders to cut $100 million from its budget (not counting construction and maintenance funds) and use that money to pay down debt.
Finally the Senate and House of Representatives will each create committees to look at the state’s transportation needs and funding options.
Because, you know, who doesn’t love committees?
Some background: the technical name for the Rainy Day Fund is the Economic Stabilization Fund. It’s a state savings account that has swelled – a lot – in the past few years with all of the oil and gas activity going on in Texas.
The legislature’s already identified some potential uses for that money: in November 2013, voters will decide whether to spend $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund on water projects.
But even if voters approve the water and transportation proposals, it’s estimated that the account will have more than $7 billion in it when the current two-year budget wraps up in 2015.
A lot of us have been pushing, especially since 2011, to use this emergency savings to cover some of the state’s emergency needs. For instance, using the Rainy Day Fund could have helped avoid some of the brutal budget cuts that Texas schools and women’s health programs suffered two years ago.
There’s no question that transportation is a critical need in Texas. I’d like to think that between my years as Mayor of Austin, Chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Senator for much of Central Texas, I’ve done a lot to help create transportation options in this region and across the state. It’s an issue I’m still working very hard on.
But there’s also no question that the state has many, many needs besides transportation.
If anything, this legislation underscores how much better Texas can be doing in other areas.
We can do better in education, in which we rank near the bottom nationally in per-pupil spending. We can do better in healthcare, in which we’re the worst when it comes to insuring our people.
Heck, we can even do better in terms of transportation:
Make no mistake: this is a decent proposal, although it’s not without real deficiencies. I voted for it last week, and I’ll most likely vote for it next year at the polls.
But Texas can do better for our future and our economy. Texans deserve better. And if anything, this legislation just shows how important it is that we all keep working to make sure Texas does do better.
Now THAT would be worth a special session or two.