Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Williamson County Road Bond flier "a slick political ad coming out the week of the election."

Road bond flier was unethical, complaint says Voters got Williamson County brochure days before election

December 18, 2002

Kate Alexander
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

A taxpayer-funded county brochure sent to selected Williamson County voters days before the November election might have violated state ethics laws, according to a complaint filed this week with the Texas Ethics Commission.

The complaint was filed by a Democratic Party precinct chairman, David Fedesna, and claims that a brochure about $350 million in road bond projects constituted an illegal use of public funds for political advertising because of its timing.

"In my view, this is a political ad . . . a slick political ad coming out the week of the election,"
said Fedesna, who said he received the mailer the day before the election.

But County Commissioner Greg Boatright said the objective was to educate residents on the progress of the road projects, not to influence the elections.

"It was something we'd been working on since August," Boatright said. "It was just coincidence that it came out at that time."

The county spent about $9,300 to produce and send the brochure, which was mailed Oct. 28 to the 15,745 households with voters who cast ballots in the March primary elections, county officials said. The county judge and two commissioners were up for re-election Nov. 5, although only Commissioner Frankie Limmer faced an opponent.

But Fedesna said the flier's content was a central issue in the race between Limmer and Democrat Louis Repa.

"I'm not doing this out of sour grapes. . . . I just don't like the idea of my taxpayer's money being used to pay for their political advertisement, win or lose," said Fedesna, a Cedar Park resident.

The brochure features a map with the status of all the road projects; it also has quotes from each member of the Commissioners Court explaining how the road bond money has been used to ease traffic in the fast-growing county.

Buck Wood, a longtime election lawyer who previously served as the head of the secretary of state's elections division, said the self-promotional nature of the quotes is questionable.

He said the contents were "clearly intended to cast the incumbents in the best light." The appearance of political influence could have been avoided if the brochure had been issued by a nonpolitical figure, such as the county engineer, Wood said.

"Sending out something like this with quotes by candidates and paid for by the county right before the election is highly questionable," he said.

He added that targeting the mailing to voters who are "active enough to vote in a primary" and sending it days before the election also is suspicious.

Boatright said the decision to send it to voters rather than all taxpayers was driven largely by
mailing expenses.

"It would be very costly to mail it to 70,000 households, and we thought it was important to send it to people who actually participate in the voting process," Boatright said.

A similar mailing was sent last year to those who voted in the 2000 general election, in which the project was approved.

The Texas House of Representatives and the U.S. Congress have established restrictions on using public money for mass mailings during designated periods before an election. But no such constraint exists for local governments, said Karen Lundquist, executive director of the Ethics Commission.

However, public money cannot be used for political advertising.

To determine whether the brochures are political advertising, Lundquist said, the commission would consider the purpose of the mailing and whether it expressly advocates for an issue or candidate.

Fedesna's complaint is the third allegation of legal or ethical violations stemming from the road bonds. The attorney general's office is investigating whether a public relations consultant, Amos "Pete" Peters, overbilled the county for work on the bonds.

Another ethical complaint revolves around irregularities in reporting contributions to the road bonds' political action committee, Roads Now.

The Ethics Commission proposed an undisclosed resolution last month to the committee treasurer, Mike Robinson, and his lawyer, but the response, if any, has not been made public.;

© 2002 Austin American-Statesman:


Monday, December 16, 2002

I-69 may leave I-35 behind

Push for I-69 may leave I-35 behind

December 16, 2002

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2002

Interstate 35 may not be the dominant free-trade highway in Texas for long.

State and federal officials are aggressively seeking funding for the construction of Interstate 69, a north-south freeway that would route truck traffic through Houston and Shreveport, La., on the way to the Canadian border.

The Texas section of I-69 could be built in about 10 years if Congress approves a request next year for $6.6 billion, state and federal officials say.

Efforts to improve I-35, however, have languished, and supporters wonder whether their efforts to convert it to a "NAFTA superhighway" have fallen behind.

"You're always concerned, especially when the federal government is cutting back on funding, and yet they're moving forward with" I-69, said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano.

Shapiro, who closely follows state transportation issues, said she knows of no substantive talks about I-35 funding in Texas during the past six months.

Until recently, North Texas transportation officials had said they did not believe that I-69, which runs from Michigan to Indiana, will be extended south into Texas for 20 to 30 years. The highway was not considered a serious contender for funding connected to the North American Free Trade Agreement because construction plans were not advanced enough.

But now, I-69 appears to be on a fast track, and it has more political support than I-35 in Washington, D.C., and in Austin.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, has called for the immediate completion of I-69. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., also supports it.

In October, President Bush issued an executive order calling for all 955 miles of the proposed I-69 route in Texas to undergo a speedy environmental review. That review, which explores the potential effects of highway construction on air quality, water, wildlife and other environmental considerations, begins in January.

Much of I-69 would be built along U.S. 59 from Laredo to Carthage in East Texas , then into northwest Louisiana. In South Texas , it would have branches to Brownsville along U.S. 77 and McAllen along U.S. 281.

The I-69 corridor has been designated a priority route on Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor plan, which makes it eligible for millions of dollars in state funding. Texas is prepared to collect tolls on parts of the interstate if that's what it takes to finish the project quickly, said state Transportation Commissioner Robert Nichols of Jacksonville.

I-35 is also a priority on the Trans Texas Corridor , but a recent proposal to connect the Metroplex to San Antonio with toll roads and high-speed rail has fallen apart, officials said. The Texas Mobility Alliance pulled out of the I-35 bypass project in October, giving even more momentum to I-69.

"Our responsibility is to look at the state as a whole," Nichols said. "The U.S. Congress and the Senate are looking at the nation as a whole. When you look at the nation as a whole, is there a need for a new interstate corridor ? Looking at the corridors we have -- I-10, I-20, I-35 -- are those corridors serving the purpose they were intended to? The intent was [for motorists] to be able to use those corridors without stopping. But, if you hit those population centers, you're dead meat."

The I-69 project could bring 40,000 jobs and $12.8 billion in additional wages to the communities around it, according to the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition in Indianapolis.

But Metroplex officials downplayed the importance of I-69's emergence as an alternative to I-35 for NAFTA traffic.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, said the proposal for I-69 "has moved up, but I don't think it's moved above I-35."

"They're both needed," she said. "I don't think we're missing jobs in our area. Those jobs are going to be Texas jobs. Those big highway jobs employ people from all over the state."

The North Texas congressional delegation will support the I-69 proposal, but only if there is a fair share of funding for I-35 in the next highway bill, Granger said.

Both interstates could receive more funding if Congress follows through on its plans to refine its definition of a trade corridor to prevent smaller highway projects from siphoning off funds intended for NAFTA routes, she said.

Bell County Commissioner Tim Brown, who is president of the pro-I-35 group North America's Superhighway Coalition, said the two interstate corridors would cater to different NAFTA markets. I-69 would be a preferred route toward the northeastern United States, and I-35 would handle traffic headed due north, he said.

"Interstate 69 is very important for Houston, no question about it," Brown said. "But you can never forget the fact that regardless of what happens in Houston, Shreveport and Memphis, you still have Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Des Moines. Those are cities served by Interstate 35."

The argument could also be made that the Metroplex, which is under fire from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for its poor air quality, is in no position to handle more truck traffic associated with NAFTA, Nichols said.

"In the Metroplex, there are a lot of transportation items to focus on," he said. "You have a tremendous need of congestion relief. As you prioritize what you should be working on most, the NAFTA traffic is probably not the No. 1 priority of people trying to get to work every day or school or shopping."

Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, disagrees with that premise. If I-69 receives funding that could have gone to I-35, the Metroplex will still see a doubling of truck traffic during the next 20 years, with fewer resources to deal with it, he said.

"We think I-35 should be getting more attention," he said.

ONLINE: Alliance for I-69 Texas ,

North America's Superhighway Coalition,

Texas Department of Transportation Trans Texas Corridor project,

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: