JFC-approved transportation budget dips further into state’s general fund

Last night, the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee (JFC) passed a transportation budget plan to boost state transportation spending by $483.7 million over the next two fiscal years.

The JFC-approved plan relies in part on increases to title and registration fees and a $90 million transfer from the state’s general fund.  That transfer is a departure from historical practices and deserves attention.

Historically, the state’s transportation budget has been funded from the state’s dedicated transportation fund, into which the revenues from gas taxes, fees for drivers licenses, auto and truck registrations, and title transfers are deposited.

The transfer of $90 million from the state’s general fund—money collected from state income and sales taxes and used to provide state aid to public schools and other non-transportation-related state programsis significant for schools.  (Note: The new transfer comes on top of an existing requirement that the state transfer $88 million each year from its general fund to the transportation fund.)

The transferred funds will be given to counties and municipalities on a onetime basis in 2019-20 to help finance local road improvement projects.  While this will be seen as good news for municipalities and counties that have long complained about under-funding of local road aid, it is a missed opportunity for school funding.

Lawmakers on the JFC could have used a portion of this money to provide a one-time increase in special education categorical aid in 2019-20. Had the money been used this way, it could have ensured that schools receive a funding increase that matches or exceeds inflation in 2019-20. It also would not have committed the state to provide additional special education funding to meet federal maintenance of effort requirements since earlier JFC action approved boosting the state’s special education reimbursement to a higher level in 2020-21.

There is still time for the JFC to act to raise special education categorical aid in 2019-20 by using some of the one-time increase in state revenues identified by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau on May 15.  Doing so would provide an increase in resources to public schools that approximates inflation in both years of the 2019-21 biennium.