Taxpayers pushed for over a decade to get these reforms in place and finally got them in SB 312. While there’s still much work to be done to completely reform toll policy in Texas, the majority of the heavy lifting began with passage of SB 312 in the final days of the session.
By Terri Hall l June 7, 2017
File Photo: Breitbart Texas/Bob Price
As the 85th session of the Texas legislature came to a close last week, a must-pass bill to continue the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), SB 312, cleared its final hurdle and is headed to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk. The House passed a strong anti-toll bill May 17, adding several good anti-toll measures pushed by grassroots pro-taxpayer groups for over a decade like: requiring state funds to be repaid if used on toll projects to prevent double taxation; a prohibition on converting free lanes into toll lanes; and, sweeping toll collection reforms, including decriminalizing toll violations. But rather than concur with the strong House version, the Senate chose to reject the House version (which signaled trouble ahead), forcing both the House and Senate to appoint a conference committee to work out their differences.
This is where chicanery usually happens, and it did.
The House suspended the rules and rushed a vote to concur with the conference committee’s changes and the Senate followed before it adjourned late that Saturday evening as well – pushing passage of a 100-page bill before anyone could read what was in it.
The rules governing conference committees are very limited.
Conferees cannot add anything into a bill that isn’t already in either version the House or Senate passed. They essentially decide what amendments stay in or get removed. However, loopholes and exceptions were added to SB 312, and the House and Senate authors did not fully notice their colleagues of the loopholes and completely new language they added.
For example, at the very end of this lengthy bill in Section 78 pertaining to the prohibition on an HOV lane being converted into a toll lane, it grants a new exception for all projects that are contained in the state’s air quality implementation plan prior to September 1, 2017. This means virtually every managed toll lane project on the books in Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth – the Texas cities that are in non-attainment for federal air quality standards – can still convert an existing HOV lane into a toll lane, despite both chambers voting to prohibit it.
This exception was not deemed a significant problem in committee nor did it prevent passage by the full Senate when Sen. Bob Hall’s SB 1143 (which is the same language of the amendment tacked onto SB 312 in the House) passed, 29-2. Yet, new language was suddenly required at the eleventh hour and was added into the bill without adequately notifying lawmakers of the change that impacts several projects, including one important to Hall’s constituents, where an HOV lane on I-635 East is slated to be converted to a toll lane.
Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and Rep.Joe Pickett’s amendment, which was a bill that had already passed the Senate, SB 812 , also had completely new language inserted. Their amendment requires toll project entities to repay any funds they receive from the state. The public resents having their ‘free’ road funds going into toll roads then having to pay again to use them. The state currently grants most toll entities road taxes to the tune of $10 billion and has rarely required any of those funds to be repaid to the state. In fact, the local toll agencies get to keep most, if not all, of the toll revenues locally, and they’re typically used to build even more toll roads.
Both the House and Senate voted to stop unrestricted grants of highway funds to toll projects and require funds to be repaid to prevent double taxation, yet a handful of conferees overruled them to allow toll projects as far back as January 1, 2014, to move forward without requiring repayment of those funds if the environmental review on those projects had commenced by that date.
The whole purpose of this amendment was to require funds to be repaid on any project that isn’t already operating as a toll road. To retroactively continue this abuse not only betrays the legislative actions taken by the majority of the House and Senate, it also betrays the taxpayers forcing the double taxation to continue.
For whom the bill tolls
An amendment by Rep. Ina Minjarez sought to remove criminal penalties for toll violations and drastically reduce the administrative fees and fines that could be levied against motorists. It passed by an overwhelming majority in the House by a vote of 136-3. Yet, this same handful of conferees put criminal penalties back into the bill. The House debated the criminal penalties and overwhelmingly decided to remove them. They felt strongly that no Texan should be made a criminal or have their ability to drive taken away for failure to pay a fine/fee. It’s a throwback to debtors prisons.
The new language actually captures more people as ‘violators’ by making them a criminal if they simply haven’t paid a single toll after supposedly receiving two bills. The toll could be for one trip for $.20 or $2.00 and they’ll now be punished under what used to be a habitual toll violator with 100 or more unpaid toll transactions.
Many Texans complain they never receive the first bill from the toll entity and then later get a late payment notice after being put into collections, erroneously, and after penalties are already imposed. This happened to Rep. Tom Oliverson who described his outrage at the experience during the House debate on SB 312 leading up to the overwhelming adoption of the Minjarez amendment to de-criminalize.
Though special interests and their lobbyists attempted to undo the intent of what they see as hostile legislation to their existence and add and remove language outside the public purview, anti-toll groups delivered a major blow to future toll roads in Texas with passage of SB 312.
Perhaps the biggest victory of all was killing the bill to re-authorize public-private partnership toll roads, HB 2861. Nineteen Texas highways would have been handed over in government-sanctioned monopolies giving private, foreign corporations the exclusive right to extract the highest possible toll in 50-year sweetheart deals. That era is now over. There’s also plenty to celebrate in SB 312.
Anti-toll reforms in SB 312:
1. Texans will now be protected from having their free lanes converted to toll lanes or having their free lanes downgraded to frontage roads.
2. Despite the exceptions added, HOV lanes cannot be converted into toll lanes.
3. Toll administrative fees will be capped at $48/year, and any criminal fines are capped at $250/year (versus the current system where thousands can be tacked on).
4. Tolls will be removed from Camino Columbia toll road in Laredo and the Cesar Chavez toll project in El Paso (after a vote by local El Paso officials who have indicated they support removing the tolls). This sets an important precedent to get tolls removed from other projects.
5. Any state funds for toll projects that had environmental review commence by January 1, 2014 must be repaid. The grant/subsidy, double tax gravy train is now over.
Texas taxpayers pushed for over a decade to get these reforms in place and finally got them in SB 312. While there’s still much work to be done to completely reform toll policy in Texas, the majority of the heavy lifting began with passage of SB 312 in the final days of the session.
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 ten turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the Conservative-Online-Journalism Center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.