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East Texas senator predicts transportation bill will pass Legislature

By Glenn Evans
July 3, 2013 at 11 p.m.


As local transportation officials bite their nails, the senator for Northeast Texas is pleased with work in the upper chamber that should put a transportation funding bill on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

The social issue of abortion and a bill tweaking sentence options for 17-year-old convicted murderers choked off a transportation bill in the first special session that ended June 25.

Gov. Rick Perry promptly called a second, 30-day special session, which began Monday with abortion restriction legislation at the forefront.

"I think we'll get it done this time," Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said Wednesday. "There's only three bills, and we are getting something done."

All three bills, including one to ask voter approval for using $800,000 of the state's emergency savings account for highway infrastructure, have been blessed by Senate committees. The full chamber will take them up Tuesday, Eltife said.

And, with two weeks left from then to the end of the special session, it's highly unlikely the Democratic minority in either chamber will be able to shut down the Legislature by filibuster.

Fort Worth Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis did just that when the abortion bill reached debate with 13 hours left in the first special session.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority sent the abortion restrictions bill to the full Texas House for a vote next week.

"A lot of the problem in the last session is some of that stuff was added in the middle of the special session," Eltife said. "(Transportation funding) was behind the pro-life bill."

The elected officials and appointed transportation leaders in Northeast Texas are as conservative as anyone in the Lone Star State, but they are hoping abortion doesn't block transportation funding again.

"I don't understand it, because the transportation needs are so great," said Linda Thomas, chairwoman of the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority. "And for them to put that on the back burner in the regular session? And you get to the next session, and they do the same thing. It's like they think the problem is going to go away, but it's not going to go away."

The problem, Eltife has been saying for at least the past two legislative sessions, is a habit of paying for road work on borrowed money. Remaining on the road already laid, even with no new construction projects, will cost $27 million in debt and interest that won't get retired until 2045, Eltife says.

That's hardly conservative, he adds.

"We're not in a position to issue more debt," he said. "We've yet to have the political courage to do the right thing, which is find new revenue."

That was the politically suicidal "T" word he mentioned, taxes. An Eltife bill to temporarily boost the state sales tax rate, until transportation debt is manageable, failed to attract enough courageous politicians. Another notion Eltife suggested, in 2011, was raising the gasoline tax to fund transportation. That leaves the rainy day fund, which is collected when oil and gas fees to the state exceed a certain limit.

Eltife called the rainy day fund bill a tiny step toward meeting transportation funding needs.

"It's a start," he said. "It's a step in the right direction for Texas, but it's still just a drop in the bucket."

Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt, newly minted chairman of the multi-county Interstate 20 Corridor Working Group, pointed out Texas' 25 million residents included almost 5 million who arrived from 2000 to 2010 - the greatest population growth in the country that decade.

More new Texans are expected to arrive.

"We've got to get prepared for growth in the state of Texas if we want to prosper," Stoudt said. "Now, you have a system that's deteriorating, and they can't maintain it and can't build because we're short of funds. You can't continue to go in debt. You can't continue to borrow money into oblivion."

Stoudt also was disappointed non-transportation issues had blocked infrastructure improvement so far.

"That really shouldn't be joined together," he said. "I think those are all separate issues that should be dealt with separately. But that has not, unfortunately, been the case to this point."

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