Media reports are playing up an apparent conflict between the legislative leadership and the governor on transportation funding. Put simply, the Lt. Governor, Speaker, and House and Senate budget chairmen are calling on the mismanaged TxDOT to go into debt to pay for overdue road projects, while the Governor opposes new debt as a short-term fix. At the heart of the issue, both sides are driving in the right direction: addressing the long history of bad spending priorities and the ongoing diversion of transportation dollars.
The legislative leadership â€“ David Dewhurst heading the Senate, House Speaker Tom Craddick and their chairman, Sen. Steve Ogden and Rep. Warren Chisum â€“ sent a letter telling TxDOT officials that if the agency would take out an additional $1.5 billion in debt to finance construction projects, lawmakers would ensure the funds are covered in the next legislative session. How? By undoing some diversions of the gas-tax monies.
Thatâ€™s welcome news; and something they should commit to doing even if TxDOT passes on cash advances from the taxpayer-funded ATM. And they should work to undo all of the diversions.
Transportation dollars have long been diverted to activities outside the scope of actually building transportation infrastructure. That means the gas tax, levied ostensibly for the purpose of building roads, has been little more than a fancy slush fund despite its constitutional dedication.
No one should rush to blame Messers. Dewhurst, Craddick, Ogden or Chisum, or Perry, for these diversions. Itâ€™s been going on for decades in big and small policy decisions that have finally added up to a fiscal mess.
It started off with Texas voters several decades ago voting to allocate 25 percent of the gas tax to public education. Why? It was for the childrenâ€¦ Of whatâ€™s left of the gas-tax monies, some reasonable folks in the budget-business estimate as much as 50 percent is going to non-transportation purposes. (Thatâ€™s a lot of roads not built.)
What has developed in the Legislature is a cultural assent to the misallocation of gas-tax resources in order to fund little slices of personal-interest pork, or to shore up pet legislative projects without anyone having to make tough budget decisions.
The letter from the legislative leadership, almost for the first time, tacitly acknowledges the diversion train has to stop â€“ even if they are suggesting new debt as the braking mechanism.
Most long-term fiscal messes arenâ€™t cleaned up, as the governor correctly suggests, with short-term fixes and going further into debt. Itâ€™ll take a rather adult discussion about the transportation priorities of state, an assessment of funding opportunities, and a commitment to unravel decades of budgetary games.
But most immediately, you and I must demand that every gas-tax dollar go directly to legitimate transportation projects; projects that will ease congestion and enhance mobility.