By Mark Lisheron | Texas Watchdog
AUSTIN — Robert Nichols, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, wants voters to approve dedicating the billions raised by the state’s vehicle sales tax directly to the Texas Department of Transportation budget.
If this doesn’t sound like a new idea, then you were paying close attention. Nichols, R-Jacksonville, offered such a bill to the Legislature during its 2011 session, which it mostly ignored.
But rather than leave it to his fellow lawmakers, Nichols told the Austin American-Statesman he intends to win their support in asking voters to approve it for the 2016-17 biennial budget by amending the state Constitution.
Although using vehicle sales taxes for major road projects sounds logical to real people, keep in mind Nichols is trying to persuade politicians who have come to rely on a 6.25 percent sales tax that generated $2.7 billion in 2010-11 for pretty much everything but roads.
Instead, the Legislature has been financing infrastructure work — much of it in and around the state’s biggest cities — by borrowing. The Department of Transportation debt stands at $17 billion, leaving taxpayers to finance a full 10 percent of its budget for the next two years on debt and interest alone.
“We don’t need to use more debt to solve our transportation problem,” Nichols, a former member of the Texas Transportation Commission, told the Statesman. “We need to identify a long-term, predictable revenue source so (TxDOT) can actually plan. If you want the most efficient way to do it, that’s what you’ll do.”
To make his plan politically palatable, Nichols said the shift of sales taxes would be phased in by 10 percent a year beginning in the 2016 fiscal year. To take a burden off of the general fund, the sales tax also would service the debt on $5 billion borrowed by TxDOT through a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2007.
Best of all, the change spares elected officials from even considering raising the motor fuels tax which, like a faulty fuel gauge, has been stuck at 20 cents a gallon since 1991. Taxing gas to pay for road work might make sense to real people, but not to representatives of rural taxpayers not inclined to support urban infrastructure projects.