DALLAS - Legislation to transform the way Texas allocates funding for highway projects was caught in a backlog of bills yesterday as the state Legislature neared the end of its 2009 session.
Also pending is the $180 billion state budget, as a conference committee works to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions. The Legislature, by law, must act on any new bills by May 31.
Though the House has given preliminary approval to legislation that would replace the appointed Texas Transportation Commission with an elected board, it is significantly different than a Senate version that passed Monday night. The Senate version would retain a five-member commission appointed by the governor but impose stronger controls by the Legislature.
The Senate bill would allow 30 fast-growing urban counties in the metropolitan areas of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, and Corpus Christi the option of raising gas taxes by 10 cents per gallon or raising vehicle registration fees through local elections. This money could be used to service bond debt and would avoid statewide battles over raising the gas tax.
The House yesterday was also considering two resolutions involving highway funding. One would allow creation of transportation finance zones around new highways, and another would limit the use of tolls to funding transportation projects and bar diversion of the money to other state agencies.
However, that legislation and other bills were slowed by a Democratic strategy of stalling votes through a filibuster-like process of using up the full discussion time allowed for each bill, even routine measures that typically pass quickly on voice votes. The Democrats are using the delaying strategy to fight the Republican-controlled Legislature's attempt to pass a voter identification law.
Republicans want to require voters in Texas to show a photo ID along with a voter registration card or two additional forms of nonphoto ID at polling places. The new law is ostensibly designed to combat voter fraud, but Democratic lawmakers say it would have the practical effect of reducing Democratic votes from Hispanics, the elderly, and the poor.
Though Texas no longer charges a poll tax, obtaining a photo ID from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles is a laborious process that costs $16 and requires a birth certificate and Social Security card. Applicants often have to wait in long lines to obtain an original photo ID, and a replacement costs $20. Obtaining a copy of a birth certificate costs $22 and also requires a photo ID. In lieu of a photo ID, voters can show a library card, which is often available for free to residents of major cities, along with a utility bill.
Rep. Richard Pena Raymond, D-Houston, said yesterday that he would continue to slow the process in opposition to the bill he called the "voter suppression bill."
"I will be on that mike at the back of the room for every vote for nine minutes and 45 seconds until we drop that voter suppression law," he said.
As in the 2007 session, the transportation legislation is coming at the 11th hour to propose profound changes in the way Texas handles transportation funding. Two years ago, in a hastily thrown together bill, lawmakers imposed a moratorium on privately financed toll projects and redesigned the process for determining how toll roads are built.
The House transportation reform bill ends Gov. Rick Perry's control over transportation policy and hammers another nail in the coffin of Perry's proposed Trans Texas Corridor, a $150 billion system of rails and highways intended to speed cargo through the state. The Senate bill would maintain the Texas Transportation Commission but reduce commissioners' terms to two years from six. Senators would gain influence through the confirmation process.
The bills are considered sunset legislation after the Texas Department of Transportation received sharp criticism from the Sunset Advisory Commission last year. The 14,000-employee agency is one of the state's largest debt issuers, with final say over all major state and federally funded highway projects.
Under the Senate legislation, more authority would devolve to regional mobility authorities that select projects for final approval by the transportation commission.
Among the bills in the Legislature's backlog is at least one whose failure to pass could prompt a special session, according to officials in the governor's office.
The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association must get funding to pay claims because it is the only hurricane wind damage insurer for property owners in 14 coastal counties. If this insurer of last resort were not available, property values in coastal communities would fall, potentially harming these communities' fiscal stability.