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Transportation deal reached in Austin

CHRIS TOMLINSON,Associated Press


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas lawmakers reached a deal Friday to increase funding for roads and bridges — if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November 2014.

Republican Sen. Robert Nichols, the author of the measure, said negotiators from the House and Senate had agreed to divert revenue from the Rainy Day Fund and only needed to fix a few details about how to maintain a minimum balance in it. Ultimately the Legislative Budget Board would determine what that balance should be and have authority to cut off funding for transportation if more money is needed for the fund.

Experts say Texas needs an additional $4 billion in the state budget to maintain the current road network, but the Republican majority refuses to consider raising taxes. Instead they have proposed taking an estimated $848 million in oil and gas taxes that would normally flow into the Rainy Day Fund to help pay for transportation. Nichols said the money would only be spent on non-toll roads and bridges and could not be spent to pay off debt.

But the dedication of oil and gas revenues to the fund is set out in the Texas Constitution, so in order to divert that money lawmakers must pass a constitutional amendment. That requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers and the approval of a majority of voters.

Sen. Tommy Williams, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Texas residents will get to vote on the measure in 2014, after they vote on tapping the Rainy Day Fund for water projects this November.

"It's appropriate that we give voters time to look at this," he said.

Members of the House and Senate have been debating for weeks on the diversion of funds. Senate negotiators wanted a minimum balance for the Rainy Day Fund written into the state constitution, while House negotiators wanted to maintain the current flexibility for tapping it. Allowing the 10-member Legislative Budget Board to study what the minimum balance should be and to decide how to maintain it would go into law, but not the constitution, under the deal announced Friday.

The House and Senate are scheduled to meet again Monday to give final approval. The second special session of 2013 ends on Tuesday.

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