Friday, February 15, 2008

Deceit and sleight of hand: Texas politicians pull off 'no new taxes' claims by pirating funds from the gasoline tax.

Use of gas tax for nonconstruction purposes is highway robbery

February 15, 2008

The Waco Tribune-herald
Copyright 2008

That was some tussle the other day when indignant Texas lawmakers took on the Texas Department of Transportation.

The agency admitted to a $1.1 billion accounting error by counting some proceeds from bond sales twice. Knuckles rapped? Oh, yeah.

This came after a heated exchange between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the agency. He wrote wondering why the department could claim it is hurting for money when voters have approved roughly $9 billion in bonds for highway construction.

Lawmakers accused the transportation department of acting like a fourth branch of the state government. State Rep. Jim Dunnam, who adamantly opposes a proposal for toll lanes to finance Interstate 35 expansion, said deceit and sleight of hand are used to convince Texans they have no choice but toll roads.

All are legitimate criticisms of the state’s transportation agency. Under Gov. Rick Perry, it has acted as if it responds to only him and its own whims.

But lawmakers, with Perry applying the ink to the budget bills they pass, are very much a part of the problem when it comes to backlogged vital highway construction.

Last November, the transportation department announced a funding shortage and said it would cut portions of its budget and freeze some new road projects. So doing, it pointed out that a very large portion of gasoline tax revenues that could go to highway construction is being siphoned away for non-construction matters, such as the Department of Public Safety. A loophole in the law allows this. Also under the law, 25 percent of the proceeds goes to schools.

We’re talking about a lot of money.

According to an analysis completed by the Texas Legislative Council last February, up to 12 percent of the $14 billion state highway fund goes to pay for nonhighway items. By far the biggest expenditure is the DPS.

In the 2006-07 appropriations, DPS received almost a billion — $787.7 million. Money also goes from the gas tax fund to insurance, retirement and other costs for employees and retirees of the department.

All of this is legal, and it allows the Legislature to fund these operations without tapping its general fund. That means it can pull off “no new taxes” claims by pirating funds from the gasoline tax.

This needs to stop. Lawmakers next session need to specify that only highways should benefit from the non-school portion of motor fuels taxes. This would mean finding money elsewhere in the budget to fund the DPS and pay for employee costs in the transportation department.

Lawmakers have made a habit of raiding designated funds to help balance the budget. This must halt across the board. Let’s put these dollars where they’re needed and make some tough decisions about where dollars aren’t needed or if, in fact, new taxes are the answer.

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