DALLAS - A local option tax for transportation projects in major urban areas appeared doomed Monday as this year's session of the Texas Legislature came to a close.
In their final day, the House and Senate were restricted to making corrections on bills that had already passed, unless two-thirds of either body voted to reconsider unsuccessful bills.
As of late Monday, neither body had voted to reconsider HB 300, to provide funding for the Texas Department of Transportation.
With only a few hours remaining in the session, some lawmakers sought to keep a "safety net" under the department to keep it from shutting down. However, that also would require a two-thirds vote of both houses.
Failure to pass the 344-page bill would prevent the issuance of $5 billion of bonds for the department under its Proposition 12 provision.
With legislation snarled by a procedural slowdown that blocked a voter ID law, legislators were anticipating a special session to deal with transportation funding and the future of the TxDOT under a sunset provision.
Also at risk of closure without the safety net were the Texas Racing Commission, the Texas Department of Insurance, and the Affordable Housing Commission.
Major changes were recommended for the transportation agency by the Sunset Advisory Commission, which submitted its report to the Legislature in January. However, lawmakers could not agree on how to reconfigure the Texas Transportation Commission, which supervises the TxDOT.
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, sponsored a bill that would have allowed counties to call elections to raise fuel taxes to support road and rail projects on a local or regional basis. When the bill was defeated, he added an amendment to HB 300 with the same provisions. That amendment was deleted by a House-Senate conference committee.
Rejection of the local option infuriated Carona, who chairs the powerful Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee and is considered the key lawmaker on all transportation issues.
The senator championed the measure on behalf of the North Texas region, which is seeking local option taxes to expand and connect its light-rail and commuter rail systems.
Without the local option tax, Carona threatened a filibuster against HB 300.
"If HB 300 dies, the only real loss is the enabling legislation to issue Proposition 12 bonds," he said Sunday. "Frankly, given the debt service entailed over time, there is a good argument to putting off this debt until we can pass legislation reducing or eliminating transportation diversions, legislation I filed, but mysteriously came to a stop in the House."
Without HB 300, the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed network of tollways and rail lines, would not be outlawed, but private toll road contracts would be illegal by September.
HB 300 would also impose controls on private tollways. As in the 2007 session, private tollways have caused major confusion.
A two-year moratorium on private tollways came to an end with the current session. Carona was the ramrod for the 2007 transportation legislation, SB 792, which altered the way tollways were allocated.
In announcing his plans to filibuster HB 300, Carona said he would read all 344 pages.
"There has never been a compiled version that makes sense. Entire sections of law are repealed by handwritten notes in the margins, and we have barely had the bill long enough to absorb so much as the table of contents. You can expect this effort to take a while," the senator said.
"I will address the knee-jerk, self-professed tax watchdogs whose outcry on the local option transportation act betrays either ignorance of the session or a callous use of LOTA as a straw man to garner headlines and addresses for their mailing lists," he said.