- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Senate approved the first bill of the legislative session on Wednesday, with speedy passage of a plan to shift billions of dollars generated by vehicle sales taxes to building and maintaining roads strained by the state’s booming population.

The proposed bill and state constitutional amendment will allow top Texas Republicans to keep campaign promises about bolstering badly needed transportation funding without raising taxes - thus avoiding the ire of their party’s most-conservative wing.

Lawmakers are constitutionally barred from passing bills during the first two months of a session that began Jan. 13, but Gov. Greg Abbott fast-tracked bills on transportation infrastructure by making the issue one of his “emergency items.”

The upper chamber passed the would-be law and constitutional amendment in a pair of 28-2 votes. They now go to the House.

Both were sponsored by the head of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee, Jacksonville Republican Robert Nichols. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the flow of legislation in the upper chamber, helped make the plan the first items considered - even more quickly than gun-rights proposals that have garnered more attention.

“I may be new, but I’m quick,” Patrick, a tea party favorite who took office in January, quipped as the proposals cleared floor procedural hurdles.

Nichols says the plan could mean $2.5 billion annually for traffic-clogged roads, highways and bridges - though it prohibits spending on toll roads.

“It’s huge,” said Nichols, who said business groups have clamored for additional transportation funding as necessary to keep Texas’ economy humming.

Taxes collected on vehicle sales currently flow into the state budget’s general revenue. If passed by the House and approved by voters in a November 2016 referendum, Nichols’ plan would divert tax collections over $2.5 billion and up to $5 billion annually for road infrastructure beginning in the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

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SENATE SPENDING PLAN

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants to use billions of extra dollars on tax cuts and paying down debt without forcing lawmakers to make a politically unpopular vote to authorize more spending.

Patrick said Wednesday the proposal would free up nearly $5 billion that is otherwise off limits unless the Republican-controlled Legislature votes to bust a self-imposed spending cap. That option is politically toxic to most conservatives.

A Senate bill would instead put the onus on voters in November to decide whether the Legislature can spend additional money in economic boom times on tax cuts and debt reduction.

Gov. Greg Abbot has called for more than $4 billion in tax cuts but other needs are piling up. Those include an underfunded state pension system and health care for retired teachers.

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ANTI-DISCRIMINATION CAMPAIGN

Two proposed constitutional amendments that supporters say would protect Texans from government intrusion into their free exercise of religion are meeting resistance from a coalition led by a former adviser to George W. Bush that calls the measures discriminatory.

The Texas Wins campaign, announced Wednesday, is a multimillion-dollar effort chaired by Bush’s former media adviser Mark McKinnon that counts among its supporters Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. It aims to tell stories of Texans who’ve faced discrimination in order to discourage lawmakers from supporting the amendments put forward by two Republican lawmakers.

Now starting to percolate through the Texas Legislature, Sen. Donna Campbell’s proposal would prevent the government from burdening a person’s free exercise of religion while a nearly identical proposal from Rep. Jason Villalba would also apply to a homeowners’ association.

Both bills have been referred to their respective chambers’ state affairs committees. If passed by the Legislature, the proposals would have to be approved by voters before becoming law.

“Some of these pro-discrimination bills, they really would give Texas a black eye,” said Texas Wins spokeswoman Christina Gorczynski.

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ON DECK

The House reconvenes at 10 a.m. Thursday, but the Senate is adjourned until Monday.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“We’ve never been in this position before in history.” - Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, on the amount of money the Legislature has to work with this session.

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