"We're on an unsustainable trajectory that's more aptly called a 'Debt Bomb.' "
House budget to divert $2 billion in gas taxes while asking Texans to pay hefty tolls
By Terri Hall
San Antonio Express-News
With budget writers citing fiscal restraint and claiming to "balance the budget without raising taxes," a closer look says otherwise.
When lawmakers propose to DOUBLE the diversions this biennium (up to $2.3 billion compared with $1.2 billion last biennium) and continue to cannibalize gas taxes to fund seven different state agencies' employee benefits, programs in the Department of Insurance, among other non-road uses, the claim that we're 'out of money for roads' and therefore need to toll nearly every road in Texas is disingenuous and fiscally reckless. Over a HALF BILLION is going to fund the State Employee Retirement System (ERS) alone.
A dozen lawmakers have been very vocal about ending gas tax diversions, like former transportation committee chairmen Sen. John Carona and Rep. Joe Pickett. Several, like Rep. Ken Paxton, Rep. Linda Harper-Brown and Senators Robert Nichols and Jeff Wentworth, have either introduced bills ending diversions (either in part or whole) or bills to dedicate other existing road and vehicle taxes solely to highways, rather than being dumped into general revenue.
Tolls are taxes
By starving the gas tax, it's forced a reliance on toll roads. Tolls are a tax, and the most expensive way to fund roads. So claims by state leaders that they're not raising taxes and being fiscally responsible isn't being honest with taxpayers. This isn't truth in taxation -- it's a grand deception. With gas at over $3/gallon and many Texans being squeezed by the down economy, now more than ever politicians need to prioritize spending and cut the fat.
After habitually raiding gas taxes, the Legislature needs to make restitution for those funds, not ask cash-strapped Texans to pay more for their roads through prolific toll taxes, particularly privatized toll roads with toll rates as high as 75 cents PER MILE, which is like adding $15 to every gallon of gas you buy.
Get our ' fiscal house in order'
It's time to get our fiscal house in order. No more shell games and false claims that we're 'out of money' for roads when the taxes being sent to Austin aren't actually being used for their intended purpose. State gas taxes (known as Fund 6) have become a slush fund instead of a constitutionally dedicated fund for roads.
"This is not a one-time emergency measure but a routine occurrence," says Melissa Cubria, Advocate, Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG). "The state's gas tax is placed into a cookie jar, also known as State Highway Fund 6 and every year officials help themselves to as many cookies as it takes to plug the holes in Texas' budget."
The coming 'Debt Bomb'
Perhaps most disturbing is the Legislature's trend in relying on borrowing and debt to fund roads (primarily to subsidize double tax toll roads), rather than dedicate existing road taxes to highways. With the State now $31 BILLION in debt for roads, we're on an unsustainable trajectory that's more aptly called a DEBT BOMB.
The Grant Thornton Audit also called the borrowing 'unsustainable' and laid the blame on the Texas Legislature for increasing TxDOT's baseline budget with debt that's now eating up more and more of our money for 'free' roads with debt service. In fact, they're having to open fully paid for roads (SH 45SE) as toll roads to try and cover the debt of failing toll roads.
Necessitates more private toll roads
"The state's already dwindling gas tax fund is raided routinely without leaving sufficient reserves for basic road repairs and much-needed maintenance. The process lacks transparency and the dishonest charade has resulted in systematic shortfalls that encourage state officials to seek short-sighted methods to fund road projects. It has fueled the state's dependence on unpopular private toll road deals called Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) or Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs)," notes Cubria.
The proposed state budget includes $1 million/yr in taxpayer money to review CDAs. It also shows 15,000 hours of legal time to review these contracts. How is this a fiscally conservative use of taxpayer money?
Reverse the spending spree
When state spending as a percentage of population has nearly tripled in the last 20 years and doubled under Rick Perry, would the sky fall if they rolled back spending to, say, 2005 levels to get some more money for roads? Compare the necessity of roads to Rick Perry's Texas Enterprise Fund (corporate welfare for his buddies) and Film & Music Marketing Fund and the misplaced priorities are glaring, and, quite frankly, offensive.
Find your Texas STATE representatives here or call the Capitol switchboard directly at (512) 463-4630. Tell them to end ALL gas tax diversions and make restitution for the gas tax funds they've STOLEN from highways.
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