Monday, May 14, 2007

"Pander away, boys and girls."

Tax that Volvo behind the tree.

May 14, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

I have a confession to make.

Tuesday evening, Statesman reporter Jason Embry called to tell me the Texas House had just voted for a three-month summer hiatus from the 20-cent-a-gallon state gas tax. My first reaction was: Wow, with Texas hurting for highway money, that's really bad public policy. And, frankly, political pandering.

Then, about 30 seconds later, I thought: Hey, that'll save me some real money!

All politics is localized, in other words, right down to my accelerator pedal. Pander away, boys and girls.

I came to my wonkish senses later. The tax holiday probably won't become law. But that vote to amend Senate Bill 1886, and a 122-19 House vote that day pancaking Williamson County Republican Rep. Mike Krusee's attempt to index the gas tax to inflation, perfectly capture what's been going on this session with transportation.

The Legislature has been vigorous in scaling back Gov. Rick Perry's toll road policies, particularly contracts for private companies to run and profit from state tollways.

So vigorous, in fact, that Perry threatened last week to call them back into a series of sweaty summer special sessions unless they back off. And there's been a feisty debate on the size of Texas' road funding shortfall over the next 25 years.

It's $86 billion, the Texas Department of Transportation says. We'd need to septuple the gas tax or have a gazillion toll roads! No way, others say, it's just $44 billion, and a mere 50 or 60 cents more tax will do it.

Then, last week, the House said "NO!" to what would have amounted to a half-cent tax increase. Lovely.

There have been some stirrings. Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who helped create this brouhaha by carrying the 2003 bill that gave the Transportation Department all these powers, is now like a reformed smoker.

He's still OK with some toll roads, but in government hands, and he wants the tolls gone when the road bonds are paid off. But, being a money guy as head of the Senate Finance Committee, he's made some suggestions for ginning up road cash.

The Senate version of the budget would redirect $310 million of gas tax money away from the Department of Public Safety and back to transportation. He carried a bill allowing $3 billion more borrowing against the gas tax for toll roads.

And, in an innovative proposal that probably needs time to cook, Ogden would create zones around new roads where the state's 6.25 percent sales tax would go to the Texas Mobility Fund.

The state could borrow against that future sales tax, build toll roads and, as businesses set up along the roads, gradually replace tolls with sales tax revenue. When bonds were paid off, the sales tax would go back to general state needs.

Another bill would allow the state's fat pension and school funds to invest in state toll roads, rather than turning to the private sector. Hard to say what will happen with that.

But something needs to happen. Gas tax holidays and tollway moratoriums might feel good, but they won't buy any concrete.

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