HB 300: Going....going.....
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER
The Dallas Morning News
The local-option tax proposal so strongly supported by North Texas elected officials emerged Friday as the biggest obstacle in Austin as House and Senate members search for a compromise that would keep the session's largest transportation bill alive.
Dozens of pieces of transportation-related issues – from toll roads to red-light cameras to the power and duties of the Texas Department of Transportation – are caught up in the piece of legislation known as the sunset bill.
But none are proving as bedeviling as the local-option tax proposal.
Even as time is fast running out – an agreement must be reached by the end of today – some differences have been resolved. But on Friday, leaders in both chambers refused to predict success. Some on both sides threatened to see the whole bill die before they give in on the local-option tax idea.
"I will absolutely let the bill go down," said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chief sponsor of the local-option tax proposal. "The state of Texas and the Texas Department of Transportation [will] continue to operate just fine if there is no sunset bill. Would it be better to have a sunset bill? Well, of course it would, because there are things we'd like to do to improve the agency, and the sunset bill does those."
If the transportation bill dies, so will dozens of other provisions, including proposals that would make big changes to how the Transportation Department is managed.
Outside the Capitol on Friday, scores of local officials gathered on the south steps to turn up the heat on legislators to keep the local-option tax in the sunset bill.
Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert said the measure is essential if Dallas wants to remain an economic success story.
"It's important to make the infrastructure investments to make sure we have a strong economy in the future," Leppert said. "What could be a bright future is going to turn gloomy."
The sunset bill, however, remains in trouble because House members have failed to warm to the idea of the gas-tax proposal.
House transportation chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he initially supported a version of the tax idea, but no longer. He said its unpopularity in the House could sink the whole bill. The sunset bill contains too many important provisions, he said, including new rules for the Transportation Department.
"There have been three polls [of House members] – none had more than 50 votes in support," Pickett said Friday of the tax proposal.
Carona and others argue that they are making headway in convincing some House members to signal their support for a final bill that includes the tax proposal. He also points to compromises the Senate has endorsed – including a change that would make 2012 the earliest date any local election to raise taxes could be held. Maximum fees voters could be asked to approve, too, have been sharply reduced.
The tax proposal would give counties authority to call elections but would require voters to agree to any new fees or taxes.
Carona said Dallas needs traffic relief, better roads and more rail lines – and blasted lawmakers and top Texas leaders for political cowardice.
"This is a time where legislators need to do what's in the best interest of the state, not the best interest of their re-election," he said.
Angela Hale, spokeswoman for House Speaker Joe Straus, said the San Antonio Republican wasn't working for or against the tax proposal. He promised, she said, to let House members each vote their conscience on big bills like this one.
"His job is to manage the flow of the House over the next 24 hours, and to get bills passed that members want passed. He is letting each one decide what is in the interests of their districts," she said.
Negotiations were to continue late into the night Friday, and could well stretch into Saturday afternoon. Carona remains hopeful.
"It's my view that those who are perhaps leaning toward a no vote at this time may well be convinced in the hours to come of the merits of the bill and of the importance of this particular issue," he said.
Staff writers Robert Garrett and Gromer Jeffers Jr. contributed reporting from Austin.
© 2009 The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com
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