There’s a multibillion-dollar transportation initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot. No, not that one. While Austinites mull building a new rail system, also on the ballot will beState Proposition 1, which could put $1.5 billion a year into road repair and maintenance. And chances are good that you have heard nothing about it.
Currently, what happens is basically that a portion of state gas and oil tax revenue goes into the Economic Stabilization Fund (better known as the “Rainy Day Fund”). If Prop. 1 passes, half that sum would move instead into the State Highway Fund. Unlike Austin’s rail proposition, the money will not go to a specific project, but will be spent like any other revenue on the general upkeep and maintenance of Texas roads. Even should Prop. 1 pass, the results will be, at best, a patch job. Lawmakers heard last session that, if current hydrocarbon tax revenues hold, the measure will provide $1.5 billion a year. Unfortunately, the Texas Department of Transportation estimates it faces $5 billion a year in unmet needs.
The public vote is an oddity, and nearly didn’t happen. Austin Sen. Kirk Watson noted that, between the anti-tax, anti-fee, anti-toll, anti-rail, and anti-debt groups, “everyone had a way to be against whatever the funding was.” Normally, constitutional amendments like Proposition 1 take place in the first election after the session in which the Legislature approves them; but knowing the measure was controversial, Speaker Joe Straus got lawmakers to delay it a year, so it would not endanger voter approval of the new $2 billion State Water Implementation Fund. Now the road funds are the only statewide proposition, and seemingly have fallen into oblivion.
“It’s definitely flying under the radar,” said Scheleen Walker, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. The group has not taken an official position on the measure, instead concentrating on endorsements in local and statewide races. It’s a complicated issue: Environmental groups generally are frustrated by the lack of rail and public transit options in the proposition, but then, congested roads generate more pollution. Still, Walker said she’s been telling voters to ask themselves one simple question: “Is this the issue that you really want to tie up Rainy Day funds?”
A handful of “Yes on One” groups have sprung up, most with strong links to the GOP: Former TxDoT chair and Gov. Rick Perry’s chief of staff Deirdre Delisi sits on the board of Move Texas Forward, while Karen Rove, wife of Karl Rove and a heavy-hitting lobbyist in her own right, serves as treasurer of Texas Infrastructure Now. However, neither group has made a major splash. The most high profile campaigning has actually been from out of state: In July, Wisconsin-based Case Construction Equipment sent its Dire States tour, highlighting collapsing infrastructure, on a seven-day excursion to Texas in July, and returns on Sept. 22. Why does a Wisconsin corporation care about a Texas proposition? Spokesman Bill Elverman admitted that, in part, it’s because they have large commercial construction customers in Texas. Yet there’s also a worrying lack of national discussion about infrastructure investment. Congress is at an impasse over the Federal Highway Trust Fund, and Missouri voters recently rejected a temporary sales tax increase for bridge and road investment. By contrast, he called Prop. 1 “a very unique opportunity, because there’s no new taxes and no tolls.”
So why aren’t Texans talking about the first serious investment in road infrastructure since the last gas tax increase, two decades ago? Watson suggests there’s no spare political energy. He said, “There’s been a few editorials, but it’s all being subsumed in everything from the governor’s race to, right here in Austin, the other Prop. 1″ (the local transportation bond). He’s still optimistic the measure will pass. “Most people, when they hear what the proposition is and does and will achieve, they’ll go, ‘well that’s a no-brainer’.”
If Watson is right, and voters approve the $1.5 billion a year this November, that still leaves the big question of how to cover the other $3.5 billion needed just to maintain the status quo. The Democrat will be pushing to end gas tax diversions (“I’m going to scream bloody murder to make that happen,” he said, and he will seemingly have Straus’ support). However, that would only raise another $1 billion, and Watson expects to fend off the only major suggestion coming from the right: Transfer all sales taxes on motor vehicles to roads. Continuing to advocate for fiscal transparency, Watson slammed that as just another diversion, one “that would blow a $3.2 billion hole in the state budget.”