The bust in the oil market may feel good at the pump but it means more bumps in the road for the foreseeable future. Legislators offered voters the opportunity to dedicate a portion of oil and gas severance taxes to the Texas Highway Fund, and they approved.
My guess is that Texans would approve of a whole lot more, including legislators doing the job that they were elected to do. Texans are smart enough to know our transportation infrastructure is inadequate, and the state’s Department of Transportation has said we need twice what was projected from the new dedicated fund to maintain “current levels of congestion.”
So just to be clear, they set up a scenario where we optimistically received just half of the funds we need to not fix the problem, but to just keep it from getting worse. For the state’s GOP, raising taxes even for a popular initiative is still hugely unpopular with their base. This is just one example of how gerrymandering skews representation away from the average Texan.
Last week on the Texas Standard, Comptroller Glenn Hegar said that the amendment was never meant to fully fund our highway system, but I’m not sure that’s how it was being sold to voters.
The ad produced by the “Move Texas Forward” campaign states that “Proposition 1 is the answer.” It claims Prop 1 will “put billions of dollars into new roads without tolls, taxes or debt. Prop 1 protects our economy while ending gridlock.” A little digging on their own website will reveal the fine print: “…this amendment alone does not “solve” Texas’ transportation funding challenge. Experts say Texas has at least $5 billion in unmet transportation needs each year. This measure is expected to provide $1.7 billion annually to address these transportation needs.”
Hegar told Texas Standard that oil and gas isn’t as big a part of the Texas economy as it was “in the 80s,” (it’s now below 20%), but followed up by saying our economy is growing just not as robustly as it was a few years ago. Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged in September of 2015 that there was “potential for ‘business growth and job creation’ if roadways were less crowded.”
So the cycle of less funding, more congestion will continue until the legislature decides to put its money where its mouth is. When Texas Standard’s Nathan Bernier pressed Hegar on his opinion on raising the gas tax or other taxes to meet transportation needs, Hegar, a former legislator evaded, but the exchange is pretty revealing:
Bernier: Politics aside, wouldn’t a modest surcharge on gasoline to help pay for roads make sense?
Hegar: Well I mean obviously any of the policy questions are up to the legislature on how they want to fund government in general…
Bernier: But they probably value your opinion? Your opinion matters quite a lot.
Hegar: Uh, yea, but I, I realize my job here in the Comptroller’s office is to give facts and data and let policy makers make decisions…
And with that, Hegar testified in front of the Senate Finance Committee days later in part about the revised revenue estimate that was lowered by over $4 billion dollars in part due to falling oil prices. This means we won’t be getting as much towards transportation as we had bargained for last fall. He told his former Senate colleagues that despite the fall in oil severance taxes, Texas was well positioned to weather the economic storm.
Senator Royce West responded to the rosy outlook by stating, “I just don’t want to be in the state of denial.” Me either Senator, me either. And voters shouldn’t have to approve every penny spent on infrastructure with a constitutional amendment when the only mandate for the legislature is to pass a budget.