State Capital Highlights

By Robert Morales —

AUSTIN — A third called session of the Texas Legislature began July
30 and ended Aug. 5 with the task completed: passage of legislation to
create a new funding path for transportation projects.

Given the contentiousness of the two previous called sessions that
each lasted a full 30 days, lawmakers plowed their way to comparatively
quick votes to give Gov. Rick Perry what he wanted. It's a two-part
solution.

First, Senate Joint Resolution 1 by Sen. Robert Nichols,
R-Jacksonville, is a proposed constitutional amendment that voters will
see on the November 2014 ballot. SJR 1, should voters approve it, would
take 50 percent of the state's oil and gas severance taxes that normally
are deposited in the state Economic Stabilization (“Rainy Day”) Fund
and instead put that revenue into the state highway fund.

Second, House Bill 1 by Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, establishes a
select committee on transportation funding, expenditures and finance.
Committee membership would be made up of five House members and five
Senate members to be appointed by the presiding officers of their
respective chambers.

The select committee will set a minimum balance each fiscal biennium
for the Rainy Day Fund. Whatever the panel suggests as an amount then
would need final approval by majority vote of both House and Senate. HB 1
also requires the Texas Department of Transportation to find a way to
save at least $100 million in funds appropriated to the agency for
2014-15 and that money would be used to pay down the agency's debt.

Gov. Perry on Aug. 5 said the Legislature's action “moves our state
closer to securing a strong economy well into the future by providing
more resources for building and maintaining a transportation system that
will keep our economy growing and our population moving.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said, “This plan enables us to relieve
congestion on Texas roadways while protecting our state's ‘AAA' bond
rating with a healthy balance in the Rainy Day Fund. To protect our
Rainy Day fund, I am recommending a floor of $6 to $7 billion for the
next two years.”

During debate action on Aug. 5, lawmakers in both chambers expressed
concern over the condition of rural roads in their districts that are
heavily traversed by oil and gas industry vehicles. They said the repair
and restoration of those roads should be high priority.Tax revenue
increases Texas Comptroller Susan Combs on Aug. 7 announced that state
sales tax revenue in July was $2.2 billion, up 7.3 percent compared to
July 2012.

Tax revenue increases

“Texas sales tax revenue has increased for 40 consecutive months,”
Combs said. “The retail trade sector bolstered the latest growth in
monthly revenue, and collections from the construction and the oil and
natural gas sectors continued to show strength.”

Combs said her agency would send cities, counties, transit systems
and special purpose taxing districts their August local sales tax
allocations totaling $671 million, up 6.2 percent compared to August
2012.

‘Fracking' is credited

Texas Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick last week told the
American Legislative Exchange Council about the importance of hydraulic
fracturing technology during the lobbying group's annual meeting in
Chicago.

Among her comments, Craddick said “fracking” is estimated to be used
in about 80 percent of new wells completed in Texas today, and, “For
almost 50 years, OPEC has manipulated oil markets, holding the United
States captive to their supply-and price-setting whims. Thanks to
fracking technology, America is moving closer to fulfilling its energy
needs domestically.”Driver law toughens up

Current law requires drivers to move over and slow down for law
enforcement, fire and emergency vehicles, but effective Sept. 1, drivers
also must move over or slow down to 20 miles an hour below the posted
limit when approaching Texas Department of Transportation workers and
vehicles that are stopped with overhead flashing blue or amber lights,
the agency announced last week.

TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson lauded the Legislature for
passing a law that recognizes the dangers agency employees face each
day. “We are hopeful that this new protection for our crews will lead to
fewer preventable deaths and injuries,” Wilson said.

On roadways with posted speed limits of 25 miles per hour or less,
drivers must reduce their speed to 5 miles per hour and violators can be
fined up to $2,000.