Kolkhorst believes the ballot language for Prop 15 was less than forthcoming about the full implications of the amendment to the Texas Constitution in 2001, and she wants to protect taxpayers from double taxation. TxDOT has already diverted $7 billion in state money to build or bail out toll roads since the amendment passed. The Texas Mobility Fund and Prop 15 marked the end of pay-as-you-go transportation policy and authorized the Texas to issue debt.
By Terri Hall l November 20, 2014
As voters overwhelmingly embrace a move away from toll roads with the election of anti-toll Greg Abbott as the new Texas Governor there remains an open question about whether or not the voters approved the use of the state gasoline tax, and any other money available to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), for toll roads when they approved Proposition 15 back in 2001. Some state leaders believe the voters approved the use of gas taxes to build toll roads with passage of Prop 15, but the ballot language never mentions a word about gas taxes nor all funds available to TxDOT being used for toll roads – which constitute a double tax.
“It’s important for lawmakers to know heading into the next session whether or not TxDOT is authorized to subsidize toll projects that can’t pay for themselves with taxpayer money,” points out Rep. Lois Kolkhorst prior to the January session. She Chairs the House Health Committee, and has been a long-time champion for taxpayers on transportation.
Kolkhorst submitted a request for an Attorney General opinion on Prop 15 following the November 4 election. She authored the legislation to repeal the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor, and she’s currently running for the Texas Senate seat, SD 18, vacated by Glenn Hegar who was just elected State Comptroller. Chairwoman Kolkhorst believes the ballot language for Prop 15 was less than forthcoming about the full implications of the amendment to the Texas Constitution in 2001, and she wants to protect taxpayers from double taxation.
TxDOT has already diverted $7 billion in state money to build or bail out toll roads since the amendment passed. It’s clear TxDOT will continue to do so unless there’s a legal opinion that says otherwise. If the Attorney General believes the voters indeed approved the use of gas taxes to subsidize toll roads (despite the deceptive ballot language), the Constitution needs to be changed to ensure Texans are protected from paying twice to access public highways.
Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), a non-partisan grassroots group that’s been the chief watchdog on Texas toll road policy for a decade, believes the Prop 15 ballot language shows a deliberate attempt to deceive voters into approving subsidies for toll roads that were not sufficiently disclosed. Regardless of how the Attorney General opinion comes down, they will work to ensure taxpayers are protected from double taxation through the subsidization of toll roads with gas tax revenues.
Prop 15 that appeared on the November 6, 2001 ballot states:
The constitutional amendment creating the Texas Mobility Fund and authorizing grants and loans of money and issuance of obligations for financing the construction, reconstruction, acquisition, operation, and expansion of state highways, turnpikes, toll roads, toll bridges, and other mobility projects.
The opinion request asserts the voters were not properly informed that approval of Prop 15 meant more than the establishment of the Texas Mobility Fund and uses of that fund. It contends the voters had no way of knowing that approval of Prop 15 also included the use of any available revenue—including gas taxes—by TxDOT to fund toll roads without the requirement that it be repaid. Such language is nowhere to be found in the ballot language.
Chairwoman Kolkhorst’s letter goes on to say, “…the constitutional amendment does not inform the voters of this marked shift to tax-supported toll roads, particularly for private toll roads, in the confusing and misleading ballot language for Prop 15. The ballot language addresses the establishment and uses of the Texas Mobility Fund, but does not explicitly tell the voters that voting in favor of the amendment also approved any and all tax money available to TxDOT for the support toll roads, both public and private…”
Privatized toll roads in Texas opened two years ago, and the first one, SH 130, is already teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The second one, on Interstate 635 in Dallas, charges up to 83 cents a mile during peak hours, and it was heavily subsidized with $500 million in gasoline taxes. Taking the tollway operated by a Spanish firm, Cintra, could cost over $20/day in tolls to get to work. Toll roads have become extremely unpopular in Texas. The Texas Transportation Institute released research in September that asked Texans to rank transportation solutions out of a possible fourteen options. Toll roads came in dead last.
The Texas Mobility Fund and Prop 15 marked the end of pay-as-you-go transportation policy and authorized the state to issue debt. Texas now leads the country in road debt, amassing $31 billion in principal and interest. Abbott, Kolkhorst, and many other conservative lawmakers favor ending the diversions from the gasoline tax and dedicating the vehicle sales tax revenues Texans already pay to the State Highway Fund to fix the road funding gap without raising taxes, and without more tolls.
Texans are grateful for Rep. Kolkhorst taking the lead in getting to the bottom of the Prop 15 controversy surrounding the shift to tax-supported toll roads in Texas. Count on her courageous leadership in the coming session to safeguard taxpayers from double taxation, and to secure a more fiscally responsible road policy.
Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of nine turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.