Tolling existing free lanes should be off the table in the Lone Star State that claims to be the beacon of freedom and boasts of a low tax burden. Tolling the main lanes of a highway and downgrading the free option to frontage roads is highway robbery and a means to force drivers to pay tolls to get anywhere. Texas taxpayers are adamant that this abuse come to an end.
By Terri Hall l May 6, 2015
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus
Conservative lawmakers pushed to attach key toll road reforms to two transportation bills in the Texas House, but they were thwarted by Speaker Joe Straus and his parliamentarian Chris Griesel who would not allow them to present their amendments. Griesel told them the amendments weren’t ‘germane’ (or salient) to the bills, HB 13 and HB 20, and blocked Rep. Jeff Leach and Rep. Jonathan Stickland from even laying out their amendments. Straus and Griesel utilized the same technique as they did on a Stickland amendment to the open carry bill recently. The two decided to reject the amendments by executive fiat BEFORE the member was even allowed to present them.
This violates House rules that require a member must first present the amendment, and if any member believes it is not germane to the bill, then a point of order is called and the parliamentarian issues a ruling. If it’s ruled not to be germane, the Speaker is to explain the ruling within 24 hours (Rule 14, Sec. 8). The House member also has the opportunity to appeal the decision to the body (under Rule 1, Sec. 9). So by denying Leach and Stickland their ability to bring forward their amendments, they also denied them the right to defend their amendments as germane and potentially overcome the ruling.
Preventing double taxation gets nasty
The Leach amendment would have protected the State Highway Trust Fund, comprised of gasoline tax revenues and vehicle registration fees, from being raided for toll road financing – which is double taxation. The House voted in favor of a similar provision by overwhelming margins several weeks ago on HB 122 for an amendment to prohibit the Texas Mobility Fund from being used for toll roads offered by Rep. Ron Simmons, ironically the author of HB 20, who refused to accept Leach’s amendment and said he’d speak against it even though the bill’s caption specifically relates to Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) operations and expenditures.
Likewise, tolling existing free lanes should be off the table in the Lone Star State that claims to be the beacon of freedom and boasts of a low tax burden. Tolling the main lanes of a highway and downgrading the free option to frontage roads is highway robbery and a means to force drivers to pay tolls to get anywhere. Texas taxpayers are adamant that this abuse come to an end. The tsunami of toll roads unleashed by former Texas Governor Rick Perry has forced many drivers to pay $200-$400 a month in new toll taxes just to get to work. Rep. Scott Sanford’s district is surrounded by toll roads.
Sanford’s amendment would have ended the practice of imposing tolls on existing roads. Strickland was going to offer a similar amendment. Though Sanford made a valiant effort to defend his amendment, it was challenged as not germane, too, and he eventually withdrew it. The legislature voted for a similar measure last session, and the Sanford amendment would clarify that when adding toll lanes to a corridor, the same number of general-purpose free lanes must be retained for the traveling public and prevent those free lanes from being downgraded to frontage roadways.
Pro-toll Rep. Larry Phillips contended with Sanford in floor debate making the unreasonable demand that Sanford guarantee members his amendment would not stop any projects. If one thing is true, it’s that there are no guarantees when it comes to interpreting law! Phillips is a lawyer and he knows better. But that didn’t stop him from being unnecessarily nasty. Phillips relishes the opportunity to attack conservatives seeking to restrain the toll tax burden. He went out of his way to be combative to Leach when he offered a similar amendment to the budget. Phillips also treats taxpayers that way, too, in committee.
The Straus payback
At first, when Democrat Yvonne Davis filed an amendment that did not seem to directly relate to the bill (it addressed appointments to the Transportation Commission), she was also told it was not germane. But she pressed and said they could not deny her the ability to present it to the members before any ruling could be issued and even then, only if a point of order is called.
She was allowed to present it, and it was even accepted by the author, Simmons, without a word of opposition. Perhaps the difference is that Davis voted for the San Antonio Republican, Joe Straus, and Leach and Stickland didn’t help elect him to his fourth term as leader of the Texas House. Straus has been punishing conservatives all session through undesirable committee assignments, denying their bills a hearing, delaying bills, overturning points of order, and ruling nearly every amendment as not being germane to the bill. Now the new tactic is to deny them even the ability to offer amendments by bypassing House rules and making pre-emptive rulings by executive fiat.
Funding help on the way
Later, the House passed SJR 5 to dedicate $3 billion a year in sales tax to the state highway fund for non-toll roads. However, it expires in 10 years. With passage of Prop 1 last session which was then approved by voters last year, coupled with SJR 5 and ending non-education diversions of the gasoline tax, $5 billion in new funding is on the way to start replacing the reliance on toll revenues.
However, unless the legislature steps in to protect the Highway Trust Fund from subsidizing loser toll projects, among other reforms, toll roads will continue unabated since Perry, prior legislatures, and local planning boards have locked them into the state transportation plan for the next 25 years. Taxpayers need to be vigilant to ensure that doesn’t happen, especially considering the new Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick campaigned on ending the reliance on tolling. But with such heavy-handed tactics being played by Straus and Griesel, lawmakers have an uphill battle brewing to get protection from punitive double taxation.
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.