Time to properly fund transportation
By BY STATE SEN. KEVIN P. ELTIFE
April 28, 2013 at 3:02 p.m.
Updated April 27, 2013 at 11:28 p.m.
The state of Texas is at a crossroads, and the decisions we make this legislative session will affect Texans for years to come.
We have spent the last 10 years funding a large portion of our transportation needs with debt, now totaling $13 billion. The amount of state debt issued in all categories has more than doubled in the last 10 years. You will hear many boast that we have not raised taxes during this same time, but I would argue that this debt, coupled with interest, is a tax on future generations. If we do nothing this legislative session to address this debt, it will be the year 2045 before we pay off the $27 billion in debt plus interest owed for transportation projects.
Coming up with the money to pay for debt and interest has caused us to fall behind on the funding necessary to maintain our roads and to pay for new projects. The Texas Department of Transportation states that we need a minimum of $4 billion more per year to keep up with our transportation needs. There are several options on the table, including dedicating motor vehicle sales taxes to transportation, increasing the gas tax, increasing vehicle registration fees and my proposal, SJR 47, which would let voters decide whether to temporarily increase the sales tax and dedicate the revenue to retire our transportation debt.
But some in state government are calling for more debt and believe borrowing some $41 billion more over the next 20 years is a solution. Some want to sell bonds with a 100-year maturity. With interest rates at record lows, it is very easy for elected officials to fund government with debt and avoid raising new revenue. It would have been much more conservative to raise the gas tax 10 years ago, index it to inflation and pay cash for infrastructure than to have gone billions of dollars into debt to pay for projects.
Let's reverse course and return to the policy that served our state well for so many years, the "pay as you go" system. Yes, this means we need new revenue, which means the dreaded "T" word, taxes. When I served as mayor of the city of Tyler we asked the voters to increase the sales tax with a promise to put our city on a "pay as you go" plan. Thankfully, the voters approved it, and the program was and continues to be a huge success. The city of Tyler property tax rate was cut in half, the city pays cash for projects, and the city's general obligation bond debt has been eliminated.
This same concept can work for the state of Texas. We must always look for efficiencies, cut spending and save money wherever we can. Let's have an open and honest debate, decide on the best way to raise new revenue and quit hiding behind debt, which only burdens future generations. We should do our best to educate Texans on the needs we have and then find the political courage to end our dependence on debt. We should set a timeline to put TxDOT on a "pay as you go" program within the next four years and set a goal of eliminating our state debt over the next 15 years.
We need to face the fact that we have run up the state's credit card and must work to pay it off sooner rather than later. Talking about taxes is not an easy task; however, Texans will appreciate knowing the facts. Transportation, like water, is critical to our future. The conservative thing to do is to put a plan in place today to pay cash and not saddle future generations with years of debt and interest.
State Sen. Kevin P. Eltife, R-Tyler, was elected to the State Senate in 2004 and represents 16 counties in Northeast Texas.