Texas has a long legacy of emergencies, real emergencies, many created by a state government that seemingly doesn’t know how to operate in any other mode. That’s why we have had a steady stream of school finance lawsuits, that’s why some communities are scrambling to find future sources of water and that’s why our part-time Legislature was still meeting in August.
Lawmakers adjourned their third and — I guess — final special session of the summer last night after completing work on an “emergency” transportation funding proposal that, if voters approve, could take as much as $1.2 billion a year from the state’s savings account, the Rainy Day Fund.
The proposal has no immediate, direct impact on public school funding, but a prolonged dedication of Rainy Day money to highways could have a long-term detrimental effect on funding for schools and other critical state needs during future budget emergencies. That is an issue that voters will have to weigh before deciding how to vote on the “emergency” highway funding plan.
I keep saying, “Emergency.” Well, Texas does have an emergency, urgent need to unclog roads and highways that are becoming more overcrowded almost every day. But the funding plan approved by the Legislature won’t even come close to covering the $4 billion-plus in additional funds that the Texas Department of Transportation says it needs every year to simply keep traffic congestion from growing. And, the funding proposal wasn’t exactly put on an emergency, fast track to voters. It will remain in limbo for another 15 months until voters finally get their say in the November 2014 election.
Although it may take voters in some urban areas almost that long to drive to their polling places, the real reason for the delay is that lawmakers are asking us to weigh in on another emergency first – a $2 billion investment in a water development fund that will be on the ballot this November. Legislators were reluctant to put both emergencies on the ballot at the same time for fear that voters would rise up against one or both of them. One emergency at a time, please.
The basic problem with highway funding, public school funding and other financial emergencies that will become more frequent is an outdated, inadequate state tax structure – full of special interest loopholes – that the state leadership refuses to address.
Part of the problem is a growing crop of legislative Tea Partiers, who would rather dunk their heads in the nearest kettle than deal with reality. A larger obstructionist is Gov. Rick Perry, who for too many years has preached tax “relief” while largely neglecting public education and waving at our state’s growing transportation needs with toll roads and credit cards.
One of these days, Texas is going to face one emergency too many, and that day may be approaching more rapidly than anyone would like to think.