Ouch! That’s likely the reaction of Texas taxpayers, now that the regular legislative session is over and the damage to your pocketbook is emerging from the chaos.

The 87th Legislature in Texas came to a clunky close a few weeks ago, and the results for taxpayers—particularly drivers—is a mixed bag.

Both during his campaign in 2014 and again during his State of the State address in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott promised to fix our roads without more taxes, fees, tolls, or debt. It was the centerpiece of his Texas Clear Lanes Initiative—to pass Proposition 7 that year in order to get more funding directed to the state’s most congested roads, without adding to the tax burden and without more tolls.

This session, however, Abbott broke three of those four promises.

The Legislature put on the governor’s desk a vehicle registration fee hike, a bill to issue new debt from the Texas Mobility Fund, and another to allow private toll entities to increase toll fines and fees above the $48/year cap placed on the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Abbott allowed all to become law without his signature, but he allowed them to become law nonetheless. Shame on him and on the Legislature for passing them in the first place.

Broken Promises

House Bill 1698 by State Rep. John Raney (R–Bryan), the $10 vehicle registration fee hike, applies to a Regional Mobility Authority, which is primarily a toll authority in Brazos County. That means every car owner will pay more in order to subsidize a toll project they may never drive. It also triple-taxes the drivers who do take the toll road, since they pay a toll and an extra vehicle registration fee, in addition to paying gasoline taxes to use that stretch of road.

The excuse lawmakers used was that it will come before the voters first. Naturally, big government can always find a way to put lipstick on a pig and sell it to the voters as “give us more money or else none of your roads will get fixed.” Hardly an argument for limited government, lower taxes, or freedom of mobility. Instead, they’re essentially saying, “Give us more while we squander, misuse, or waste the money we already take from you.”

When RMA executive directors garner higher salaries to run these little toll fiefdoms compared to the executive director of TxDOT with 11,000 employees, there’s a problem with bloat and overspending. It’s certainly not because taxpayers aren’t paying enough.

House Bill 2219, authored by House Transportation Committee Chair State Rep. Terry Canales (D–Edinburg), will open up the Texas Mobility Fund once again to issuing more road debt. The state debt combined with its local toll entities (which are a subdivision of the state) and private toll entities exceeds $85 billion. The excuse we heard for issuing new TMF debt was that because I-35 through Austin will be done non-toll and cost $9 billion, there’s not enough money to go around to fix other congested corridors without tolls (which Abbott has taken off the table). So leadership says it needs access to new road debt in order to avoid using tolls, particularly private toll projects like the exorbitantly expensive ones (as in more than $3/mile or $24/day) outside Austin, in DFW, and a stretch in Brazoria County.

House Bill 1116 by State Rep. Ed Thompson (R–Pearland) is one of the most egregious of the session. It gives a blank check to private toll entities to slap enormous toll fines and fees onto drivers’ toll bills, bypassing an existing state law that caps those fees at $48/year on TxDOT-operated projects. Why on earth would lawmakers allow unlimited fines and fees by private, foreign corporations to be slapped on Texas drivers that it doesn’t tolerate from TxDOT—fines that can result in a criminal charge and cause drivers to have their vehicle registration blocked and cars impounded?

Watch Out for the November Ballot

One piece of legislation that bypasses the governor, HJR 99 by Canales, is a constitutional amendment that gives counties the ability to issue new road debt using an unpopular method backed by property tax increases called Transportation Reinvestment Zones.

Lawmakers already tried getting this past the voters in 2011 (then known as Proposition 4), but voters rejected it. Now they think they can slip it past you this November by deceptively changing the ballot language to the remove the phrase “ad valorem tax increases” and throw in the word “transportation.” (Ballot initiatives for transportation tend to pass with more than 90 percent of the vote. Nearly 100 percent of citizens need and use roads on a daily basis; it’s one of the few core functions of government.)

Even more frightening is the broad language used for the land to do it. It changes the Constitution to give counties authority to issue bonds to finance “undeveloped, underdeveloped, or blighted areas.” That could mean virtually anything! One man’s blight is another man’s treasure. The word “transportation” wasn’t even in the bill until State Sen. Bob Hall (R–Edgewood) amended it.

Here’s what the ballot language was in 2011:

The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to permit a county to issue bonds or notes to finance the development or redevelopment of an unproductive, underdeveloped, or blighted area and to pledge for repayment of the bonds or notes increases in ad valorem taxes imposed by the county on property in the area. The amendment does not provide authority for increasing ad valorem tax rates.

Here’s what it says now:

The constitutional amendment authorizing a county to finance the development or redevelopment of transportation or infrastructure in unproductive, underdeveloped, or blighted areas in the county.

Senator Hall jumped into action to help us try to amend the bill and restore the original ballot language. He did manage to amend it in the Senate to ensure it can’t be used on toll projects. Whew! But the Senate expressly voted to keep the deceptive ballot language. Be forewarned, this bill involves increases to your property taxes to pay off long-term debt for 40+ years for state transportation projects (or anything they can call “infrastructure”). If you look at the current Biden administration infrastructure bill, that could be student loan forgiveness, Obamacare subsidies, Medicaid expansion or universal preschool. We don’t know the number for this proposition yet or where it will appear on the ballot, so stay tuned and stay engaged so you know to vote “no” on this proposition in November.

Also, remember to hold your lawmakers who voted for HJR 99 accountable. No fewer than 112 House members co-authored the bill, including five Freedom Caucus members: State Reps. Briscoe Cain, Matt Krause, Valoree Swanson, Steve Toth, and Cody Vasut.

So, What’s the Mixed Bag?

The grassroots victories come from what you don’t see rather than what you do. Stopping the fire hose of bad toll road, anti-car, anti-driver bills was our biggest accomplishment.

We stopped bills that would have:

  • authorized unlimited private toll roads.
  • reduced speed limits citywide to 25 MPH in urban areas.
  • doubled fines in any corridor labeled a “highway safety corridor” (another form of a speed trap).
  • made cars have to stop, not just yield, for pedestrians.
  • made TxDOT consider social justice and transportation equity (i.e. bike lanes, transit, sidewalks) in all of its funding decisions, despite the fact none of these users pay road taxes.
  • eliminated competitive bidding on certain contracts.
  • expanded public-private partnership land deals for the transit agency in Fort Worth (a threat to property rights).

Transportation Committee Chairs Canales and State Sen. Robert Nichols (R–Jacksonville) deliberately held up our good reform bills to remove tolls once the debt is paid off, to decriminalize an unpaid toll bill and to cap the toll fines and fees imposed by agencies other than TxDOT, though Nichols did keep many bad bills from going anywhere in the Senate.

Cain also played a major role in stalling our toll collection reform bill, House Bill 3314, in Canales’ committee.

Canales presided over an onslaught of horrible bills, not only giving them hearings, but also moving them out of his committee, forcing the grassroots to mount continuous battles to stop the litany of bad bills in the House.

The worst among them was House Bill 3467 by Canales to extend the disastrous SH 130 private toll contract by another 20 years. It went bankrupt in less than three years, and rather than give it back to Texas taxpayers free and clear of any debt (as was promised under oath by former Transportation Commission Chair Ric Williamson in 2007), the court allowed a new set of foreign corporations to come in and take over the contract.

They already get to collect tolls until 2042 (for a road that had its debt wiped out). Now they want another 20 years? It’s an outrageous betrayal of the promise given to taxpayers and represents the graft associated with such private toll contracts known as Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) or public-private partnerships. The non-compete clause forbids expansion of free roads in Guadalupe and Caldwell counties, and forces Texans to pay for any uncollectible tolls for out-of-state or international drivers. Plus, these private entities use the state as their toll collector, blocking vehicle registrations and impounding Texans’ cars if they don’t pay up.

State Rep. Trent Ashby (R–Lufkin) amended HB 3467 on the floor, kicking the ball to the unelected Transportation Commission to decide if extending the contract was a good deal for the state (an easy bar to meet when they offer a revenue-sharing scheme with TxDOT), and it would have barred any future extensions. Thankfully, it died in the Senate, but it did pass the House. A day of reckoning should be coming at the ballot box for all who voted for such a horrible special interest bill, as well as for the four fee-hike and road-debt bills (with the fate of the one constitutional amendment to be determined in November at the ballot box).

A Few Good Ones Made It

Nichols authored two good bills; one relates to toll road abuse.

Senate Bill 1727 will prevent local governments from forming their own government corporations to sell their toll systems in order to use toll revenues as their personal slush funds for non-road purposes. Harris County did this to deliberately bypass state law that prevents raiding toll revenues for non-road uses.

Senate Bill 15 prevents the disclosure and sale of drivers’ personal data to private entities who then use it to market to you without your consent. TxDOT and the Department of Motor Vehicles have been particularly guilty of doing this, but as the session wore on, lawmakers kept discovering more and more government agencies selling personal data—like Parks and Wildlife—and added them to the bill.

Senate Bill 858 by State Sens. Nathan Johnson (D–Dallas) and Angela Paxton (R–McKinney) also protects transit riders’ personal data, so personal data privacy gets a big win here, although none of this extends to toll agencies guilty of the same thing. Toll agencies and their lobbyists get a free pass for another two years, as lawmakers turned a blind eye to the mountain of toll road and toll billing abuses.

Property Rights Reform

One bright spot was the series of eminent domain reform bills that finally passed after many sessions of repeated road blocks by special interests. State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R–Georgetown), along with many Senate joint authors including longtime property rights (and anti-toll) champion State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R–Brenham), finally got these across the finish line.

SB 721SB 725, and SB 726 will allow any appraisals used by condemning entities to be disclosed to landowners in time for their hearings, remove condemned land from a landowner’s property tax bill, and force condemners to make actual progress on the public project within 10 years or the landowner can buy it back.

So, like most sessions, taxpayers got very little meaningful toll road reform, as lawmakers chose to keep biting around the edges and avoid tackling the most pressing issues facing drivers.

This is a commentary published with the author’s permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to submission@texasscorecard.com.

Terri Hall

Terri Hall is the founder and director of TexasTURF.org and TollfreeHighways.com. Both groups advocate for property rights and pro-taxpayer transportation solutions.