Monday, October 18, 2010

“If all 180 of us stood up to raise the gas tax, Rick Perry would still veto it.”

Raising gas tax off the table this campaign season


by Andy Hogue
Dallas Blog
Copyright 2010

A tax increase by any other name is still the same -- at least during campaign season.

Hopes of increasing the state’s gas tax as a means of triage-ing a projected shortfall in highway funding were raised during the 81st legislative session.

But at the current time, any tax increase proposal -- even to offset something as controversial as tolling existing roadways -- is looked on the same way as any other tax increase is in Texas. That is, as potentially damning to a campaign.

Based on what we heard during recent weeks on the campaign trail, both Gov. Rick Perry and Bill White oppose raising the motor fuels tax to fund transportation projects.

And, based on an before a meeting of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security committee on Oct. 12, a sudden increase in pro-gas-tax-increase courage may not be enough to ward off the veto of a governor dead-set against a tax increase of any kind.

So is a motor fuels tax increase still on the table at all? We look at that below.

Perry, White say ‘no taxes’

Democratic gubernatorial nominee White has (without referencing last session’s Local Option Transportation Plan specifically) called for “more local options” during several speeches, and ending diversions from the state’s transportation fund. White also called for more federal highway dollars for Texas.

But raising the gas tax? Not a word about it.

Republican incumbent Perry also has called for ending diversions. As we know, he has been a fan of public-private partnerships via CDAs as an option, a la Trans-Texas Corridor. And Perry has in the past said Texas should get a better return from its investment into the federal highway system, as right now the state gets back about 70 cents for every dollar paid to the federal government.

But no calls for raising the gasoline tax come from the Perry camp, either.

The Texas Highway Fund is expected to dry up in 2012 without more revenues.

A plan to index the gasoline tax to the rate of inflation was proposed in the 81st Session -- the motor fuels tax hasn’t been increased since 1991 and stands at 20 cents per gallon. This proposal never took off amid other transportation-related concerns, including the Texas Department of Transportation’s Sunset review.

A more popular call is for ending diversions from the state’s transportation fund (Fund 6 -- about $1.2 billion of which is diverted to Department of Public Safety programs), but that also has fallen flat.

Then there was the ill-fated Local Option Transportation Act (SB 855, known by insiders as “TLOTA”), which called for allowing counties to raise or lower the gas tax to pay for local and regional transportation projects -- a plan championed by Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) and Rep. Vicki Truitt (R-Southlake).

The plan was narrowly defeated in the waning hours of the session, amid cries from its strongest supporters that something ought to be done about the coming transportation funding nightmare.

With that, a slow trickle of legislators came forward in favor of raising the gas tax as a means of bringing peace to a divided Legislature. Earlier this year, House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Pickett (R-El Paso) became a proponent.

“I’ll go on record -- I’m for a gas tax increase,” Pickett said to the Fifth Annual Transportation Forum in Austin last January. “If I were king for a day, I’d raise the gas tax to a rate that’s not hurting, but I’d have to explain it to the public.”

But that was nearly a year ago. More recently, he told the Houston Chronicle (Oct. 4) that a gas tax, even after the election, wouldn’t be looked at any more favorably than in 2009.

“I’m trying to make small changes that over time could make a difference,” Pickett said, via the Chronicle, “… because I can tell you right now, Pickett trots out there with a gas-tax bill, I think we’ll get 160 votes against it.”

Prospects of a veto override

So what if, somehow, the Legislature gets up enough support to push for a gas tax increase? Could it get around a governor pledged not to raise taxes at all?

“If all 180 of us stood up to raise the gas tax, he would still veto it,” said Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio).

Wentworth was answering a challenge from a citizen testifying at the hearing to raise the gas tax, Mel Borel of San Antonio. Borel, a member of the anti-toll road group Texas United for Reform and Freedom (TURF), came to oppose reauthorization of confidential Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) and public-private partnerships in road-building projects, as CDAs were an interim charge for the committee to consider.

Borel, along with TURF president Terri Hall, who spoke previously, mentioned a Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) meeting recently at which 900 people showed up -- about 90 percent of them opposed tolling State Highway 281 north of Loop 1604.

The MPO voted to recommend tolling that portion of 281. Hall characterized the move as ignoring the voters.

“I represent every square inch of 281 north of 1604,” Wentworth responded. “I’m for reducing congestion and increasing mobility … and it was not a matter of arrogance, or that we said we enjoy ignoring the voters.

“What we did was very carefully weigh our options. It wasn’t a close vote. An overwhelming number of the members of that MPO voted to keep tolling as a viable option, not because we want tolling. As a matter of fact, Mr. Borel, I prefer an increase in the gas tax!”

“Let’s go for it!” Borel replied, only to be told such a move would not be politically expedient.

“ It’s kind of refreshing to have a politician run a campaign promising he would veto any tax increase,” Wentworth retorted, “and keep his word once he’s sworn into office. I think we should raise the gas tax, but the Governor doesn’t. I don’t run the state. The Governor doesn’t either. But we’ve got to work together, and we won’t see this governor signing any tax increase bills. So we’ve got to find another way of doing it.”

Wentworth noted that there has been only one successful veto in the last 30 years -- one that occurred after the Legislature was immediately brought back in at the end of the Governor’s veto period.

“The way it works here,” Wentworth said to Borel, “is that all the bills are signed in the waning days of May. And then we all go home.”

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