You will be hearing more and more about Proposition 1, which will be on the Nov. 4 general election ballot in Texas. It is an amendment to the state’s constitution that would boost transportation funding in a big way.
Proposition 1 would essentially capture half of the annual oil and gas tax funds that now flow to the Economic Stabilization Fund — commonly known as the Rainy Day Fund — and direct them to road construction and maintenance projects in Texas. If passed by voters, Prop 1 would be on the books until 2025, unless reauthorized by lawmakers before then. Estimates differ slightly, but it would immediately infuse $1.4 billion into the state’s transportation fund. The Texas Department of Transportation says it has a $5 billion backlog of road projects.
There are a lot of good things in this measure, and some concerning ones too. Let’s start with the pros.
Prop 1 specifically excludes toll roads.
The enabling legislation written by lawmakers in August provides for the establishment of a minimum Rainy Day Fund balance or at least a mechanism for one. If oil and gas tax receipts go down, transportation may get nothing that particular budget year or cycle. Always good to hedge your bets.
The law requires TxDot to cut $100 million from its non-road budget, including mandates to pay down and refinance debt used to build roads we’re already using (or soon will). The state is adamant about reducing its long-term debt, which is a good thing.
It sunsets in 11 years, a requirement for anything this ambitious.
It addresses a major need in one of the fastest growing states in the country. The group promoting Prop 1, Moving Texas Forward, says 18 million more vehicles will be on Texas roads and highways by 2040.
There is no tax increase.
The Rainy Day Fund balance, used to offset at least some of the severe budget shortfalls that began in 2010, today has a balance of just more than $6 billion.
It’s not all rosy, however. Among the cons:
There is not an obvious specific provision that prevents the Legislature from diverting more road-use taxes already on the books. Texas spends 47 cents of every dollar generated by road-user fees, which includes the state’s 20 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax, for something other than road construction or maintenance. Boosting road construction funds through Rainy Day appropriations may open the door to divert a greater percentage of transportation funds to other uses, leaving the state right back where it started.
The Rainy Day Fund has a robust balance now, but that fund is basically a “just in case” war chest. What if another Hurricane Rita happens? Or another national economic bubble pops?
Using Rainy Day funds could create a perception that Texas’ transportation needs have been addressed and a long-term funding solution may never be realized.
As we hurdle closer to general election season, study up on Proposition 1. Advocates are rolling out press coverage and seem to be well-funded for a campaign drive leading up to Nov. 4.
This proposition has a lot of moving parts and it would be easy to get confused by what exactly it does.
Before lawmakers can write a budget the Comptroller’s office has to certify a revenue amount for them to appropriate. Those estimates are usually very conservative, because they represent an amount of money that is guaranteed to be there. If the state’s economy exceeds that estimate, it will generate excess funds by the start of the new budget year.
The ESF or Rainy Day Fund in Texas was created in 1988 and took effect on Sept. 1, 1989. Lawmakers used 1987 oil and gas tax revenues as a baseline for determining how much can be deposited into the fund each year. The state automatically deposits 75 percent of any oil and gas tax revenues above and beyond the level collected in 1987 into the Rainy Day Fund. For many years the ESF balance was small by state budget standards. Then came the boom in natural gas production in Texas. The Rainy Day fund balance grew from $1.3 billion in 2007 to $6.1 billion in 2013. It is expected to top $8 billion this year.
Prop 1 deserves consideration if for no other reason than to give Texas a fighting chance at keeping pace with growth. But as this debate unfolds between now and Nov. 4, the real benefit is moving ideas for more permanent and sustainable solutions to fund transportation back into the spotlight.
If you’ve been on I-35 lately, you know first-hand the need exists.
Steve Boggs is editor of the Tribune-Herald. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.