Election 2015

Texas Prop 7 Promises Free Roads Without Raising Taxes

State Prop 7 diverts some sales tax to fund roads, but critics say it comes at the cost of other needs like education and healthcare.

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State Prop 7 is a little difficult to decipher as written on the ballot:

“The constitutional amendment dedicating certain sales and use tax revenue and motor vehicle sales, use, and rental tax revenue to the state highway fund to provide funding for nontolled roads and the reduction of certain transportation-related debt.”

Translation: The state would divert a portion of its sales tax to provide extra money for the Texas Department of Transportation.

Traditionally, state roads are funded through federal allocations and the gasoline tax. But Texas lawmakers have been reluctant to raise the gas tax to keep pace with the aging infrastructure. State Senator Paul Bettencourt says it’s a matter of not wanting to increase taxes when the state already has the revenue.

“We’ve had a tremendous explosion in population and business activity and a whole bunch of new people moving to the state. And the bottom line is that when you have that type of economic growth, you need to put resources dedicated to building roads. And, in my case, I’m insisting that they be free roads,” said Bettencourt, who represents District 7 in northwest Harris County.

Under Prop 7, once the state generates $28 billion in sales tax revenue, the next $2.5 billion will go to the state highway fund. This would be in effect every year for 15 years, and lawmakers have the option to extend the measure in 10-year increments. The state may not hit that $28 billion target for a couple of years, especially with the downtown in the oil industry. Economics Professor Steven Craig says the problem with this funding model is it takes money that could be spent on the criminal justice system, healthcare and education, and earmarks it instead for state highways. He favors a user-pay system such as the gasoline tax or toll roads

“It’s certainly hard to argue that our state is overeducated. So do you really want to cut education and have more roads? And that’s a political decision that has to be made, but that’s what this ballot measure is about,” said Craig, who is Dean of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Houston.

To be fair, Prop 7 wouldn’t technically require cuts to any other department. But as the state’s sales tax revenue grows, extra money would automatically be funneled to roads instead of to other growing needs like schools or Medicaid. But Bettencourt calls it an order of magnitude approach.

“We can put in approximately $3 billion in this type of formula and really handle the road-building situation. When you mention the healthcare money and the Affordable Healthcare Act, you’re talking about a sum that’s almost $100 billion,” Bettencourt said.

So lawmakers figure they can essentially solve the roads issue with Prop 7. If voters pass the measure, it would amount to the largest single increase in transportation funding in Texas history.

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Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Executive Producer for News

Laurie Johnson leads daily news coverage for HPM. She helps reporters craft and sharpen their stories on tight deadlines, with the aim of getting the most relevant and current information into local newscasts. Laurie is a native Houstonian who started her career at Houston Public Media in 2002. She is...

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