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Local option tax bill working its way through Senate

Monday, April 13, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The local option tax bill – giving various regions of the state the right to take a proposition to voters pay for local transportation improvements – had as many twists and turns Wednesday afternoon on the Senate floor as a good movie.

Actually, it wasn’t quite like a good movie. It had long periods of monotony and waiting. But it did include a lot of drama. First came tales of a frustrated Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) in the Republican caucus, angry his bill would be delayed and worried that conservative groups would derail his efforts to give local areas – including Dallas/Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin – the right to tax themselves, if the voters so choose, for various projects, including commuter rail.

North Texas business leaders, who wanted to tax the region to jump start commuter rail, initiated the bill. By mid-afternoon – with rumors that the wheels had come off the bill — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Carona had departed the Senate chamber for a brief visit to Gov. Rick Perry’s office to talk about the bill.

After the vote, Carona confirmed that Perry had some concerns about Senate Bill 855, but the governor had promised not to veto it, which was enough to encourage Carona to bring it to the floor of the Senate, where he worked with various lawmakers on compromises, in the form of amendments.

In a variety of motions and amendments on Wednesday afternoon, Carona promised Dallas and San Antonio to give extra sensitivity to low-income residents. He gave Austin the option of an election every other year in November. And for San Antonio he narrowed six fees and taxes to a single option of a motor fuels tax. An amendment to limit that vote to once every four years failed.

For the weekend before Easter – with lawmakers eager to leave town – it was a rather lengthy debate, and one intended to pare down and limit the potential for tax elections in various areas of the state. And, as Carona pointed out in discussion after the vote, the implementation of Senate Bill 855 would only go into effect if two Senate Joint Resolutions passed.

One, Senate Joint Resolution 9, would only allow SB 855 to go into effect if diversions were phased out of Fund 6. The transportation fund, Fund 6, has $1.2 million in diverted funding to other non-transportation purposes. The intention would be to phase that out over an eight-year period to recognize that voters would only want to pay new taxes if they knew the entire Fund 6 pie was devoted to transportation and not other efforts, such as the Department of Public Safety and various education-related measures such as school buses.

The second Senate joint resolution – SJR 52 – would allow Fund 6 to be used for commuter rail. This is not important to every area, but it was imperative to Dallas-Fort Worth and important to transportation leaders in Central Texas, who would like to see the Georgetown-Austin-San Antonio corridor finally funded.

Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) raised his own serious, and apparently sincere concerns, that the mandating of regional taxation would be unconstitutional. Carona encouraged him to call a point of order on the bills for clarification, which did not appear to satisfy Ogden. In the end, Carona asked that the bill be passed on second reading, with the intention of exploring potential Constitutional challenges.

After the vote, Carona expressed regret, saying he would have preferred a statewide initiative that provided an indexing of the gas tax. While local regions favored that, Gov. Perry opposed it.

The bill will be back on the Senate calendar on Tuesday. It passed 23-8 on second reading, with local senators Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Rep. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) voting in favor of the bill.

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