Thursday, March 31, 2005

Dewhurst and Transportation Commission squabble over mobility bond funds

Dewhurst looks to toll roads for school money

Lawmakers turn their focus on a big Transportation Department budget.

March 31, 2005

Austin American-Statesman Copyright 2005

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in a stinging three-page letter Wednesday, chastised the Department of Transportation for its doomsday reaction to a delayed decision to sell toll road bonds and all but demanded that $300 million in transportation dollars go to public schools instead.

Legislators, even with a slight increase instate revenue, have been scouring state government for money for public education, social services and property tax cuts. The Transportation Department, with its proposed $15.1 billion two-year budget — and its unpopular push for toll roads — has become a fat target.

Dewhurst's letter came in the wake of a ruckus that occurred over the past week after the Texas Bond Review Board , an important but little-known panel made up of proxies for Dewhurst, Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, put off action on $1 billion in mobility fund bonds. The agency had hoped to issue the bonds by April 29 and use them on a variety of road projects statewide that the department said are ready to go.

The Transportation Department struck back the next day, sending a letter from Executive Director Michael Behrens to its field offices asserting that the delay put $1.1 billion in highway construction at risk of cancellation or significant delay.

In Wednesday's letter to Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, Dewhurst wrote that the decision will remain in limbo pending the Legislature's decision on whether to take $300 million destined over the next two years for the mobility fund, and instead put it in the state's general fund.

That money, Dewhurst wrote, could then be used for "school reform." The Senate has passed a $139 billion budget for 2006-07, but Senate leaders want to add more than $3 billion extra for public schools, money that Dewhurst has said could come from "non-tax" revenue.

Officials familiar with the backstage maneuverings had said that the motivation for delaying the vote was to give lawmakers a chance to redirect some of the fees that under current law would pay back those bonds. Dewhurst's letter Wednesday seemed to confirm that interpretation.

Right now, the mobility fund gets money from two motorist fines that were introduced last year, while three long-time automotive fees go to the state's general coffers. Under current law those funds would be swapped Sept. 1, to the benefit of the mobility fund. Dewhurst suggested that for the next two years, the mobility fund instead get only the $170 million from the motor vehicle inspection fee it is scheduled to receive. Then, in fiscal 2008, the other two fees would go the mobility fund.

Williamson, in a meeting with reporters minutes after Dewhurst released his letter, acknowledged that perhaps commissioners "were being a little too aggressive. . . . We play by the rules that the governor and Legislature give us. We will adjust our plan accordingly."

Just what adjustments will be necessary — and how they will affect road projects — were far from clear Wednesday.

Under Dewhurst's fee proposal, he said in the letter, the mobility fund would still have enough revenue coming in to issue the $1 billion this year and another $1 billion in 2006. However, the Transportation Department would be out that $300 million, money that could have been used on a cash basis for current road projects.

One possible saving grace, from the Transportation Department's point of view: state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, has a bill pending that would direct $209 million into the mobility fund in 2006 and 2007, money that would come primarily from the agency's gas tax revenues, which now go to build and maintain non-toll roads. There are other bills pending that would take an additional $200 million over the next two years from the highway fund for general state needs.

"In a legislative session, there are a lot of moving parts," said Williamson, who served in the House from 1985 to 1998.

Too many, according to state Rep. Mike Krusee, R- Williamson County, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Krusee said that if the change is made, the Legislature would be double-crossing local elected officials who put their careers on the line to endorse toll road plans that would be fed by the mobility fund.

"All the cities depended on our word," he said. "So it's just another raid on transportation dollars. There's no way to sugarcoat that."

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