AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The Texas Senate approved the first bill of the legislative session on Wednesday, with speedy passage of a plan to shift billions of dollars generated by vehicle sales taxes to building and maintaining roads strained by the state’s booming population.READ MORE: Mesquite Police Officer Shot, Critically Wounded During Traffic Stop
The proposed bill and state constitutional amendment will allow top Texas Republicans to keep campaign promises about bolstering badly needed transportation funding without raising taxes – thus avoiding the ire of their party’s most-conservative wing.
Lawmakers are constitutionally barred from passing bills during the first two months of a session that began Jan. 13, but Gov. Greg Abbott fast-tracked bills on transportation infrastructure by making the issue one of his “emergency items.”
The upper chamber passed the would-be law and constitutional amendment in a pair of 28-2 votes. They now go to the House.
Both were sponsored by the head of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee, Jacksonville Republican Robert Nichols. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the flow of legislation in the upper chamber, helped make the plan the first items considered — even more quickly than gun-rights proposals that have garnered more attention.
“I may be new, but I’m quick,” Patrick, a tea party favorite who took office in January, quipped as the proposals cleared floor procedural hurdles.
Nichols says the plan could mean $2.5 billion annually for traffic-clogged roads, highways and bridges — though it prohibits spending on toll roads.
“It’s huge,” said Nichols, who said business groups have clamored for additional transportation funding as necessary to keep Texas’ economy humming.READ MORE: Police: Motorist Claims Sneeze Led To Critical Auto-Pedestrian Crash
Taxes collected on vehicle sales currently flow into the state budget’s general revenue. If passed by the House and approved by voters in a November 2016 referendum, Nichols’ plan would divert tax collections over $2.5 billion and up to $5 billion annually for road infrastructure beginning in the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
Nichols said that cementing the change constitutionally allows the state Department of Transportation to budget for long-term expenses without worrying that future Legislatures may alter its funding.
But opponents of the plan — and even some senators who voted in favor of it — expressed concern that it mandates how future lawmakers set their budgets, rather than just providing more-current funding.
“This is not a new source of funding, this is simply taking existing funds and renaming them,” said Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson, who voted against the plan along with Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis.
Voters have supported constitutional amendments approved during the 2013 legislative session each of the past two years. They passed one last November tapping Texas’ Rainy Day Fund for more than $1.5 billion annually in transportation funding, and, in 2013, approved a $2 billion amendment for drought-fighting water projects.
New Braunfels Republican Sen. Donna Campbell said the Texas electorate will back Nichols’ plan, too.
“The only bad thing I see about this,” she said “is voters might get stuck in traffic.”MORE NEWS: Keri Hilson Says 'Hip Hop Family Christmas' Is All About 'Honoring Your Family, Not Living For The World'
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