Energy Committee votes to seek amendment to transportation funding rules

After hearing concerns from multiple unions and construction associations, the interim committee studying energy needs voted Wednesday to amend the proposal to remove constitutional restrictions on the use of the gas tax.

The original plan was to simply remove that restriction from the state constitution. But both union and contractors said that would open the door to lawmakers and future governors just taking chunks of that money for other purposes that don’t serve the needs of transportation in Nevada.

“We need to plan for additional revenue for our highway fund, not a plan for reducing it further,” said Rob Benner of the Construction and Building Trades Council of Northern Nevada.

Rusty McAllister of the AFL-CIO and Danny Thompson, former head of the AFL-CIO and representing operating engineers, also opposed the blanket removal saying that is a drastic approach.

“Removing the guardrails on this highway construction money is not the right way to go,” said Thompson.

McAllister pointed out that there is already $70 million from the Highway Fund designated for other purposes and that would happen more often if the constitution is changed. They were joined by the Associated General Contractors among others.

Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, compared the potential damage to what happened when Social Security was opened up, allowing Congress to take money from that program’s trust fund.

“I don’t want to open up for potential abuses,” he said adding that he can’t support removing the language completely.

The existing constitutional language limits the use of that money to construction, repair and maintenance of public highways. Nevada Department of Transportation Director Kristina Swallow that that prohibits using the money for urban transit, operational costs and other transportation needs.

“I’m concerned unless we expand the pie, we’re further dividing the pie which would have the effect of reducing construction and maintenance,” said Assemblywoman Jill Tolls, R-Reno.

Swallow agreed that is a major concern since Nevada already has a $530 million shortfall in transportation funding needs.

Sen. Chris Brooks, D-Las Vegas, said that language was drafted in 1937, 83 years ago.

“Things have changed,” he said. “We really need to look at a fundamental change in how we view transportation.”

Brooks said he would support, “very narrow and specific language in the amendment that limits it to transportation.”

Taking that suggestion, Committee Chairman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, D-Las Vegas, called on the committee to amend the proposal to make it clear the money must all still go to transportation needs, but add urban transit and operational costs to the list of permissible uses along with other infrastructure needs.

Without an amendment to that language, she said the state’s hands will remain tied, unable to fund transportation needs that have changed dramatically because any new revenue they create will be limited by the existing constitutional language.

Hammond and Tolls both voted against the proposed amendment saying they still weren’t comfortable that the money would all go to transportation needs.

Swallow said finding additional funding for transportation needs is key to making the amendment work. That, she said, is the job of the working group created by the previous item on the committee agenda. That working group will be charged with developing preliminary plans for a “sustainable transportation funding system.” The working group was told to present its plans to the 2023 Legislature.


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