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Voters to decide tapping Texas' rainy day fund

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CHRIS TOMLINSON,Associated Press


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas lawmakers don't like to spend taxpayer money, but they have no problem asking voters to do it for them.

A constitutional amendment is making its way through the Legislature this week that will ask voters to divert money from the state's rainy day fund for transportation. If approved as expected, the measure would join another amendment on the ballot in November to take money from the fund for water projects.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has chosen to let voters decide whether to spend billions of dollars because they are stuck between their pledge not to raise taxes and their duty to build the infrastructure the booming Texas economy needs to keep growing. Lawmakers' solution is to ask voters to approve shuffling around existing revenue.

The transportation amendment will free up $800 million a year for roads and bridges by correcting some budget gimmicks from years gone by. When the state needed money for public schools, legislators took money from roads to pay for them. Now lawmakers want voter help to reverse that.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, authored the legislation that will stop diverting $800 million in gasoline taxes to public schools and put it back where it was originally intended to pay for roads. To make up for the loss, Pickett's plan will divert $800 million a year in oil and natural gas taxes from going into the rainy day fund and put it into the available school fund.

"When we go to the gas pump, not all of the taxes we pay for gas tax goes to roads. ... What we are saying it that all of the gas tax should go to roads," Pickett told fellow lawmakers in explaining House Joint Resolution 2. He promised that the proposal would guarantee schools the money they need, even if oil and natural gas production slows down.

Unfortunately, though, that won't solve the state's budget shortfall for roads. Experts say Texas needs $4 billion a year to maintain the current network, but advocates say the $800 million is a good start.

The other constitutional amendment, adopted in May, will ask voters to take $2 billion from the rainy day fund to finance water projects. The state desperately needs to build infrastructure to keep from running out of potable water in the next 50 years.

The $2 billion will not pay for pipelines and water conservation projects; instead it will be used to reduce the cost of borrowing $53 billion over the next 50 years. This will add to the debt that many conservative Republicans have repeatedly expressed concerns about.

All proposed constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of the Legislature and then must be approved by voters. The State Water Implementation Fund has already cleared the Legislature. But tea party lawmakers have balked at the amendment for roads.

Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, argued last week that lawmakers should appropriate money based on the state's needs and not rely on voters to make spending decisions, a position echoed by many Democrats who have criticized what they see as a shell game to hide the need to raise taxes.

While most tea party lawmakers in the House voted against the resolution, some expressed hope that the Senate will add a provision that establishes a minimum balance for the rainy day fund, something they call a floor. They say the state's credit rating depends on keeping the fund healthy.

Pickett, though, insisted lawmakers bear that responsibility since the rainy day fund can only be tapped by a supermajority of the Legislature.

"We are the floor," he argued.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, has long warned against Texas becoming like California and allowing lawmakers to write the budget at the ballot box. He's also worried about how voters may be swayed between now and November.

Pitts tried to add an amendment that would make the roads spending conditional on the water proposal also passing. He said he can already imagine campaign ads urging people to support one, but not the other. He wondered if voters will understand the importance of both efforts.

Indeed, lawmakers have given Texans enormously important decisions to make. Future economic growth relies on plentiful water and efficient transportation, and funding those things will soon be up to them.

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