Sunday, January 12, 2003

78th Legislature: The hot issues

Budget shortfall will overshadow most debates

January 12, 2003
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2003


Issue: Whether to make it easier for the public to know who is giving money to elected officials and candidates.

Players: Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, the chairwoman and vice chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission; Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People.

Analysis: The Legislature has rejected limiting campaign donations, allowing state candidates to accept five- and six-figure amounts, from individuals. The argument is that the public can decide if a donation is unseemly if it's disclosed. But there are gaps in the system.

Last election, the reports for the five top statewide races went unreported on the Internet for three weeks because minor party candidates failed or refused to file their reports. Watchdog groups embarrassed statewide officials into reporting the occupation and employer of their largest contributors, but it's only voluntary.

Without that information, advocates who want to make the information mandatory say, it is difficult to know what special interests are backing a candidate. And 38 percent of the legislative candidates continue to file paper reports instead of electronically, claiming that no one in their campaigns use a computer to keep a list of contributors. Gov. Rick Perry is one of the few candidates who voluntarily reports his campaign cash-on-hand.

The Ethics Commission, created by the Legislature after lobbying scandals of the late 1980s, also is up for Sunset Review. The legislators on the Sunset Commission are recommending only minor tweaking with an organization that has never issued a subpoena, audited an elected official's report or referred a complaint for criminal prosecution. And the process by law is secret. Government watchdog groups want to make the agency more open and aggressive by giving it the same authority and structure as other state investigative bodies.

Outlook: The Legislature seldom changes ethics or campaign finance laws without a scandal. But it must vote whether to continue the Ethics Commission, so it gives proponents of change a chance to debate an array of issues as floor amendments.


Highway planning

Issue: Expanding the state's authority to use bonds and other financing methods to build toll roads and Trans -Texas Corridors

Players: Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and chairwoman of Senate State Affairs Committee; Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville; Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County; Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso; Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving; state transportation officials; transportation advocacy groups and lobbyists.

Analysis: The session will start with some fairly straightforward fixes for new regional mobility authorities but then head into rocky territory, centered around two key items: putting money in the Texas Mobility Fund and setting the framework for Gov. Rick Perry's Trans -Texas Corridors plan.

The mobility fund created by the 77th Legislature, which gives the state the right to sell bonds to pay for future roads, doesn't have any money in it. Shapiro, who sponsored the fund last session, again is leading the charge.

That mobility fund is a potential source of money for Perry's initiative to build 4,000 miles of toll road, high-speed rail and pipeline corridors . Giving it some teeth will show how seriously lawmakers take the corridors plan.

Another expected issue is the expansion of the state's powers to award more design-build contracts, such as the one being used on Texas 130 in Central Texas . There, engineers finish designing a road that is already under construction, thus speeding up the process. Who would head that effort, and whether the Transportation Department itself will push for it, is not as clear.

Important for Central Texas is Krusee's effort to fix the regional mobility authority law, giving the new transportation bodies the bonding and condemnation rights they need to proceed with building toll roads. Those powers were mistakenly axed during the last session.

Transportation advocacy groups also plan to push for a 10-cent gasoline tax increase, given the Transportation Department's oft-cited estimate that it can pay for only 36 percent of the projects it already knows it needs.

Outlook: The gas tax increase is a long shot at best, but look for that effort to lead to discussions about a local-option sales tax dedicated to transportation, which would require a constitutional amendment to raise the state tax cap. Krusee should have no problems getting the regional mobility authorities fixed, but finding money for it in a cash-strapped session will be more of a challenge.

Austin American-Statesman: