Friday, July 15, 2005

More Toll Road Secrets

Local panel works to redefine toll role


Patrick Driscoll, Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News Copyright 2005

Local toll road officials, still a little stunned by an abrupt change in state toll plans for San Antonio, are now starting to map out how to get what they want in a kinder, gentler way.

"It may require that there be some softening on local control," Bill Thornton, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, told the Express-News Editorial Board on Thursday.

The surprise that threatened to derail the authority's yearlong joyride with the Texas Department of Transportation was an announcement in April that a private consortium had proposed building and operating the first 47 miles of toll roads in San Antonio.

The Spanish firm Cintra and its local partner Zachry American Infrastructure say they can build the system quicker and free up $610 million in tax dollars. Public officials speculate that the companies would seek higher toll rates and collect the fees for up to 50 years.

State officials decided to pursue the proposal and seek other bids, which put the Mobility Authority's role in question. The state originally had planned to build half of the tollway and give it to the authority, which would then have expanded it.

Regardless of what happens, either the state or the Mobility Authority will own the network. And authority officials, promised input on evaluating bids, are now focusing on staking out what they might want, such as:

Charging a one-time franchise fee and annual payments.

Capping and sharing profits.

Overseeing road designs and ongoing maintenance.

Controlling formulas that set and increase toll rates.

Ensuring that nearby roads can be improved as needed, since private nvestors like to restrict such projects to make sure enough drivers use toll roads.

Three of the authority's seven board members, staff and consultants will likely sign confidentiality agreements in order to see bids and follow negotiations. They wouldn't be able to tell the rest of the board about what they learn but could report on whether criteria are met.

With San Antonio's traffic growing, letting a private consortium develop toll roads could end up being a good deal, said board member Bil McBride, a retired Air Force general.

"That might be the answer," he said.

San Antonio Express-News:


Thursday, July 14, 2005

Texas Senate agrees, in principle, to limit land grabs.

Senate backs land-grab limits

Eminent domain measure similar to House's; bodies now will swap and discuss legislation


Houston Chronicle, Copyright 2005

AUSTIN - After a spirited, four-hour debate, the Texas Senate approved a bill Wednesday limiting state and local governments from seizing homes and other private property for economic development.

Senate Bill 62, which passed 25-4, is similar to a proposed constitutional amendment passed by the Texas House earlier this week. Now, each chamber can consider the other's legislation.

Gov. Rick Perry added the eminent domain issue to the agenda for the special session so lawmakers can respond to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows local governments to take private property for economic development purposes.

"While most people, including me, think they knew what public use was, the Supreme Court said that public use could include things like economic development," said Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, the bill's author.

"The ownership of land is precious to the people of this state," Janek said. "I think people value those investments as much as they do anything else, perhaps maybe more than we do our pickup trucks."

Janek said he agreed to an amendment exempting a proposed $650 million stadium in Arlington for the Dallas Cowboys because he thought it was necessary to move the bill forward.

However, he successfully fought off attempts by Houston Republican Sen. Jon Lindsay, who wanted to subject the bill to required review in two to four years.

Houston Democrat Sen. John Whitmire and Janek engaged in a heated debate as Whitmire repeatedly urged lawmakers to slow down and study the issue more, pointing out that local officials wanting to pursue economic development projects are elected officials.

Janek said his bill is needed because it was wrong for an 87-year-old woman to lose her childhood home in the New London, Conn., case the Supreme Court decided, just to make way for economic development.

Whitmire, however, said Janek was more worried about a business - Western Seafood Co. - in an eminent domain controversy in Freeport than he is about the elderly losing their homes.

City officials in Freeport are trying to seize 300 feet along the waterfront belonging to the company in favor of a private marina development. The matter is awaiting a decision in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court.

Janek said he also is concerned about property rights of the seafood company, a family business that has been around for 50 years.

The bill also was amended to make clear what would still qualify as legitimate public uses under eminent domain law in Texas.

For instance, railroads, seaports, airports, public roads and highways are subject to eminent domain laws, as are provisions for utility services, such as the need for an energy pipeline. Governments also could take land for water and wastewater projects, including drainage projects necessary to prevent flooding.

Houston Chronicle:


"The time is ripe for the government to get rid of the plan all together.”

Toll roads must be stopped, citizens say

July 14, 2005

By Melissa Johnson
The Herald-Zeitung Copyright 2005

If a group of local citizens gets their way, toll roads will never be used in Texas.

Terri Hall, the organizer of the Texas Toll Party, encouraged approximately 65 attendees to mail letters to county commissioners in the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority and demand a third party review of the tollway plan, which Hall says takes away civil liberties.

Hall’s main arguments against the plan was that tolls on Highway 281 would double tax citizens because the road was previously paid for with gas tax funding. Hall was also concerned by the lack of a toll limit and sunset on when the toll would end.

“Our elected officials are ignoring us,” Hall said. “So we’re going to vote them out of office and show that the ballot box is stronger than special interests.”

The presentation also focused on the idea that the Texas Department of Transportation planned to manipulate alternative routes by adding stoplights and additional wait time along non-tolled roads. Hall emphasized the idea that the tolls have an economic impact on citizens regardless of whether they traveled Highway 281.

“Even if you and I choose not to pay tolls when we drive into town, it doesn’t matter when the H-E-B delivery truck uses the road to drive to the store,” she said. “Everybody who owns a business is going to be affected and they’re going to pass those costs onto you.”

Bulverde Mayor Pro Tem Sarah Stevick and Councilwoman Cindy Cross were also in attendance at the meeting. Stevick stood up and expressed personal concerns regarding right-of-way and increased taxes.

“The city has to pay 10 percent of right-of-way and for every $33,000, taxes go up 1 cent,” Stevick said. “This seems like a specialized tax for people who have to come into Bexar County to work.”

Bexar County resident Frank Flagg expressed his concerns over what seemed like ever increasing taxes.

“I’m paying my gas tax and high school and property taxes when I get low Social Security and retirement,” Flagg said. “All I need is another tax.”

Hall said an alternative to the toll road is traditional gas tax funding, which could support overpasses for traffic-filled intersections. Hall claimed that TxDOT’s budget allows for maintenance, right of way and new construction costs.

Nancy Ream of San Antonio said that when she attended a 2001 TxDOT meeting, the department said that funding for Highway 281 had already been secured.

“We were told that 281 was already funded,” Ream said. “It’s like where did the toll idea come from and what happened to the money earmarked for the flyovers?”

Hall said that the toll roads idea came into play because the plan was about building revenue for the state rather than reducing congestion.

“The time is ripe to get rid of RMA and the time is ripe for the government to get rid of the plan all together,” Hall said.

Herald-zeitung www.


Perry 'takes a stand' on eminent domain

Perry Adds Property Rights To Session


Livestock Weekly
Copyright 2005

AUSTIN — Texas Gov. Rick Perry last Friday expanded the special legislative session to include legislation that limits government’s ability to take property from private owners through eminent domain.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently set a new legal precedent that allows government entities to seize private property for economic development purposes.

“We applaud Gov. Perry for taking a stand on this issue,” said Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association President Dick Sherron of Beaumont. “Property ownership is a basic American right that shouldn’t be trampled on by federal, state or local governments.”

On June 23, the Supreme Court held, in a five-to-four vote, that local governments could seize private property to promote economic development, thus expanding the power of eminent domain by broadening the definition of “public use.”

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor disagreed, saying in her dissenting opinion that “nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”

O’Connor recommended that landowners look to the states for protection.

TSCRA was among several agriculture and property rights groups that called for immediate action during the first-called special session of the 79th Legislature. Legislation has already been filed by Rep. Franke Corte of San Antonio and Sen. Kyle Janek of Houston to prevent the taking of private property for economic development purposes or to benefit other private entities.

Efforts also are underway to restore and strengthen the protection of private property rights on the federal level. Texas Sen. John Cornyn has introduced legislation declaring that eminent domain should be reserved for true public uses. He also urges the states “to take action to voluntarily limit their own power of eminent domain.”

© 2007 Livestock Weekly:

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Andrade: "I'm delighted to remain working together."

Toll panel chooses to keep finger in the pie


Patrick Driscoll
Express-News Staff Writer

Board members of a local toll road authority decided Wednesday not to pick up their marbles and go home just yet.

Private vs. public funding

If private companies build and operate the toll roads:
— No public funds used for construction
— $610 million in public money freed up for other projects
— Companies take on financial risks
— Some toll segments ready for use 10 years sooner
— Companies might seek higher toll fees and would share revenues with the public for up to 50 years
— Amount of local control not yet known

If Alamo Regional Mobility Authority develops the toll roads:
— Project publicly funded with taxes and revenue bonds
— Toll lanes take longer to complete
— Local officials in control

Source: Texas Department of Transportation

Friction had heated up in recent weeks between the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation over who should have the final say on a private consortium's proposal to build and operate the first toll roads in San Antonio.

Last week, authority Chairman Bill Thornton suggested to board members in an e-mail that it might be best to step back and let state officials handle the process, and play nice if asked to help.

But on Wednesday, board members said they should keep working with state officials and try to reach an agreement on how to proceed.

"Nobody has a greater interest in this project than we do," said board member Bill McBride, a retired Air Force general.

One of the biggest concerns is lack of timely communication.

The state's sudden announcement last month that the construction cost of a 22-mile startup toll system had jumped from $450 million to $600 million after more than a year of planning is a poor way to handle business, board member Cristina Rodriguez said.

And those numbers don't include another $54 million for overhead toll-tag readers and electronic signs and cameras.

Plus, if state officials transfer the tollway to the mobility authority anytime soon, they might also pass along $190 million in costs for in-house engineering, interest on bonds, overruns and rights of way.

In other words, to control the project, the authority could be looking at $844 million.

"We've gone from X to Y to Z to somewhere off of Z," board member Bob Thompson complained. "This is about the fifth change I've seen on this."

State officials had planned to build the tollway on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side within eight years and give it to the mobility authority, which intended to collect toll fees of 15 cents or more a mile and use the money to expand the network another 25 miles.

In April, the Spanish firm Cintra and its San Antonio partner Zachry American Infrastructure proposed building and operating all 47 miles of the network without using any public money and opening some segments years sooner.

The state's new construction estimates bolster the Cintra-Zachry offer. In fact, it now appears the mobility authority couldn't afford to expand the startup toll system as originally planned, an investment banker retained by the board said Wednesday.

Don Gonzales, executive vice president of Estrada-Hinojosa, said private companies could fare better by setting higher toll rates, raising rates faster, finishing projects quicker and putting more money and collateral up front to reduce bond costs.

Meanwhile, the Texas Transportation Commission voted last month to pursue the Cintra-Zachry proposal and seek bids from other companies, even though San Antonio officials had wanted a postponement.

Commissioners have said they won't decide anything without the blessing of San Antonio.

Hope Andrade, a commissioner from San Antonio, repeated the promise Wednesday and told the board she's glad they're still on board.

"I'm delighted to remain working together," she said.

San Antonio Express-News:


Trans-Texas Corridor protected from eminent domain amendment proposed by Texas Legislature

Eminent domain takes hit

Senate passes limits; Cowboys' stadium [and TTC] would be protected

July 13, 2005

The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2005

AUSTIN – Shouting one another down in a fight about property rights, senators approved broad restrictions Wednesday on government seizure of homes or businesses to spur economic development.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Kyle Janek of Houston, and its leading critic, Democrat John Whitmire of Houston, angrily interrupted each other as they tussled over a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing such use of the government power known as eminent domain. It was an unusual brawl in the normally genteel upper chamber, known for doing its dirty work away from the floor and then staging debates full of kisses and pats on the back.

The measure, sent to the House by a vote of 25-4, would spell out the projects for which governments still may condemn land, and would forbid a taking of land for economic development by a private entity.

Senators approved a protection for Arlington's efforts to condemn homes for a proposed $650 million Dallas Cowboys stadium, already approved by voters.

Also protected, through an amendment by Democrat Royce West of Dallas, was the city's plan to raze the Mercantile Building and other vacant buildings in a downtown reinvestment zone.

Dr. Janek said he was angered to read that an 87-year-old woman could be forced from her longtime residence because of the Supreme Court's June 23 ruling in a case from New London, Conn., that involved a waterfront development project.

"It is wrong to take a landowner's land away and give it away to a private concern," Dr. Janek said.

Mr. Whitmire objected that lawmakers are likely to harm Texas communities as they rush to join a political backlash against the court's 5-4 ruling.

"It's political expediency at the cost of economic development," he said.

Mr. Whitmire warned that the bill would make new sports stadiums and convention centers much harder to build because holdout property owners could demand exorbitant prices for land.

Dr. Janek said that some good economic development projects might suffer but that "I'd rather err on the side of the landowner."

He said the intensity of the Senate's debate suggests that a proposed constitutional amendment to ban condemnation of land for economic development may be in trouble. Lawmakers are trying to approve a constitutional amendment, which the House endorsed Tuesday and voters would also have to approve, and legislation like Dr. Janek's, putting the amendment into effect. They have a week until their special session ends.

The Republicans who control the Legislature value property rights and private enterprise, Dr. Janek said.

"This is a classic example of economic development versus the right to own land – where they conflict," he said.

The bill would prohibit the state and local governments and corporations they've created from condemning land if the taking is for economic development, aids a private party or "is for a public use that is merely a pretext to confer a private benefit on a particular private party."

Eminent domain still would be allowed for roads, airports, water projects, pipelines and utility easements.

Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, added a protection for "public infrastructure," which he described as museums and convention centers.

The bill says cities still could condemn land for community development and urban renewal, as long as economic development "is a secondary purpose."

Gov. Rick Perry won protection for his top transportation priority, the Trans-Texas Corridor, that would allow new toll roads, railroads and pipelines to crisscross the state.

However, under an amendment by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, the Texas Department of Transportation would face new restrictions on its use of eminent domain, too.

The department could condemn farms and other property to build a corridor and allow for gas stations and convenience stores to be located in a corridor's median – though not within 10 miles of an interchange with an interstate highway.

But the bill would rescind the authority the Legislature gave the department in 2003 to use eminent domain to provide "ancillary facilities" to a toll road – such as hotels, restaurants or other commercial operations.

"The hotel was taking [the department] way, way out of the highway business," Mr. Shapleigh said.

The Cowboys' proposed stadium in Arlington won protection after the city's two senators – Republicans Kim Brimer and Chris Harris – succeeded in exempting from the bill "sports community projects approved by the voters before Dec. 1, 2005."

However, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce argued, in a memo circulated in the Capitol, that the bill would jeopardize a separate development project – razing a "blighted business corridor" in east Arlington to build a facility for a General Motors supplier.

Two sexually oriented businesses have refused to join 10 other businesses in selling land for the $50 million project, wrote chamber President Wes Jurey and senior Vice President Craig Richard.

"No one wants to see little old ladies bulldozed off their property for a new shopping center," they wrote. "The unintended consequences of this legislation, however, may be far reaching and detrimental to older cities."

Voting against the bill were Mr. Brimer, Mr. Whitmire and his fellow Houston Democrats Rodney Ellis and Mario Gallegos.


Dallas Morning News:


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Texas House Approves Eminent Domain Limits

House gives OK to eminent domain limits

If the Senate approvesthe measure, Texans will vote on it in November


Houston Chronicle, Copyright 2005

AUSTIN - Seeking to circumvent a recent, controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Texas House on Tuesday approved a measure to prohibit state or local governments from seizing homes and other private property for economic development purposes.

Reflecting widespread support from Republicans and Democrats, the proposed amendment to the Texas Constitution was approved 132-0 and will go on the Nov. 8 ballot if it wins approval from the Senate.

The Senate was expected to debate a related bill today. That measure would spell out details of the new restrictions should voters approve the constitutional amendment.

"The constitution is to protect the citizens from the government, and I think that is what this accomplishes," said Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, the proposal's primary sponsor.

"We have an opportunity to be proactive in protecting people's property," he added.

Gov. Rick Perry added the issue to the special session's agenda after numerous lawmakers reacted angrily to a Supreme Court decision handed down last month.

Corte's proposal has dozens of co-sponsors.

The high court, in a 5-4 decision in a case from New London, Conn., held that promoting economic development is a "traditional and long-accepted government function" and falls under governments' authority to use eminent domain to take property from an unwilling seller.

Previously, the governmental right to exercise eminent domain had been limited to public purposes, such as acquiring property for highway expansion, building schools or laying utility lines.

In such cases, governments are required to fairly compensate owners for their lost property.

The Supreme Court said that its ruling didn't prevent states from placing their own restrictions on the power of governmental bodies to take private property for economic development.

Corte's constitutional amendment would prevent the state and local governments from taking private property if the purpose is primarily for economic development.

Little disagreement

Corte told legislators that his proposal wouldn't affect the ability of public port authorities to expand their facilities or interfere with the condemnation of property for other public purposes.

The only dispute over the measure was over a provision that would require a local government, if it condemned a homestead for primarily economic development purposes, to pay the homeowner the house's fair market value or its replacement cost, whichever was greater. That proposal by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, was adopted 66-63.

"The Supreme Court's ruling would allow government to condemn your family's home, bulldoze it and build a new shopping mall or some other kind of economic development project simply to generate more tax revenue," Perry said last week in expanding the session's agenda.

"I agree with an overwhelming majority of lawmakers and citizens who believe that this starts us down a slippery slope that will lead to the erosion of Texans' rights," he added.

The Texas Municipal League, which represents city governments, has expressed opposition to the amendment. Frank Sturzl, the league's executive director, has said property owners could use the legislation to argue that any attempt to seize their land is for economic development and take cities to court.

The controversy has called attention to Freeport's plans to seize the property of two seafood companies to be used for an $8 million marina.

Freeport Mayor Jim Phillips has said the constitutional amendment wouldn't affect the city's effort because the city already has a contract on the marina and filed eminent domain proceedings a year ago. But the pending legislation has raised some uncertainty about his claim.

Houston Chronicle:


"Highest court gets a "10" rating in the field of mental gymnastics."

Eminent domain and the elitist bent

July 13, 2005
By Louie Gohmert, John Carter and Ted Poe

The Washington Times Copyright 2005

In ancient days of kingdoms and fiefdoms, those in authority would sometimes arbitrarily and sometimes capriciously order the transfer of property from one owner to another person who was in greater favor with the ruler or who offered greater kickbacks to the ruler. The owner from whom the property was taken had no recourse once the king or ruler had made the decision to transfer the property. To enforce the transfer, the tyrannical despot would make clear that the full weight of his military or law enforcement would be brought to bear against anyone who attempted to stand in the way of the transfer.

In a free market system on which the United States was founded and previously possessed, someone who desired the property of another for private purposes or development had to keep making a higher and still higher offer until it was too good to refuse.

In the recent Supreme Court case of Kelo et al. v. City of New London et al., the elaborate 20 page majority opinion of the Supreme Court is one of the most eloquent, articulate, intellectual efforts to ever rationalize or try to cerebrally legitimize the forced transfer from the legal, legitimate owner of non-blighted property to someone who is in greater favor with the ruler of the area. It is something that our high court can point to with pride that they almost make it sound "fair" that private property can be taken from one legitimate owner and forcibly transferred to one who offers greater financial rewards to the ruler.

What a great day for the intellectual superiority of our highest court as it gets a "10" rating in the field of mental gymnastics, even from the Russian judge, but what a very sad day for truth, justice and what used to be the American way!

Though the Supreme Court has previously and improperly cited evolving international opinion as a basis for their rewriting U.S. constitutional law, the Kelo case is a "devolution" of precedent. This court obviously has a bent toward rationale that may be overheard at international cocktail parties or receptions from foreign elitists who believe that they know better than the Neanderthals in American and wish to substitute their neo-intellectual notions for the will of the American people. However, their Napoleonic ideas have no business replacing the ingenious provisions that succinctly comprise our Constitution.

Our tripartite government was designed with checks and balances on each branch. The president can veto acts of Congress and the Congress can also override the president. However, with an activist Supreme Court as we now have, the high court trumps all else including constitutional amendments since they can interpret those by inserting language that is not there.

Once again, it is made abundantly clear that judges appointed to the Supreme Court must not only be intelligent, but they must understand that the greatness of this nation's past lies in common sense, not in an elitist oligarchy that holds itself unaccountable to anyone.

Rep. Louie Gohmert served three terms as a district judge in Smith County, Texas, and as chief justice of the 12th Court of Appeals. Rep. John Carter served more than 20 years on the bench. Rep. Ted Poe served as a judge in Houston for more than 22 years. All three are Republicans.

The Washington Times:


Texas House, Governor try to convince angry public that they want to protect property owners

House OKs eminent domain bill

Prohibition measure crafted in response to Supreme Court ruling

July 13, 2005

The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2005

AUSTIN – A constitutional ban on state and local governments seizing property to help private interests passed the Texas House unanimously Tuesday, a strong response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the measure's author said violates "everything that Texas is about."

"'Next to the right of liberty, the right of property is the most important individual right guaranteed by the Constitution,' " said Rep. Frank Corte, quoting former President William Howard Taft.

The amendment prohibits cities from using their power of eminent domain to take private property and give it to a third party if the primary purpose is economic development. The high court ruled last month that local governments could do so but gave states the option to prevent it.

Gov. Rick Perry added the issue to the Legislature's agenda for its special session Friday, saying the state had a compelling reason to protect property owners.

The 132-0 vote means the bill doesn't need final House approval but goes directly to the Senate, where it must pass with a two-thirds majority before going to voters in November.

House members added a protection into the bill for Arlington's efforts to condemn homes for the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, already approved by voters. Mr. Corte said he supported the change because he didn't want to override what the public had already decided.

The Senate sponsor of the measure, Houston Republican Kyle Janek, has said he opposes taking property to build a sports stadium. But Mr. Corte's changes would affect only the Arlington project.

A bigger fight is likely when lawmakers consider bills to put the amendment into effect. In those bills, they must define what constitutes "economic development" and ensure that governments can still take property for projects such as airports, pipelines or other infrastructure.

The Senate is expected to take up its version of that legislation in the chamber today.

"It's not the intention of this legislation to pre-empt any of the good things the community can do ... that would be appropriate for eminent domain," said Mr. Corte, a San Antonio Republican. "We're going to make sure that in that legislation, we are not going to throw out the baby with the bathwash."Dallas officials have opposed the bill because they say it hinders efforts to makeover blighted downtown buildings.

"I don't mind additional safeguards to make sure that this process is not abused," said Larry Casto, an assistant city attorney and lobbyist for the city. "Our big concern in Dallas is downtown redevelopment, and these long-vacant buildings that are full of asbestos that we've got to do something about. ... The constitution is just the absolute wrong place to do this."

The blow was softened a bit by an amendment championed by Dallas area legislators that would let lawmakers decide on a case-by-case basis which projects could be pre-approved as eminent domain projects. The change, approved unanimously, was written in part by Plano Republican Brian McCall and Dallas Democrats Rafael Anchia and Yvonne Davis.

House members also added a provision requiring governments that take homestead properties for public economic developments reimburse the owner at least as much as it would cost to replace the house and property, or the actual damages incurred by the loss.

The change by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, passed by only three votes because opponents said they worried about limiting property owners' ability to win more compensation.


Dallas Morning News:


Summer session is special for Texas Legislators

Legislators swiftly agree to increase own pensions



Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

AUSTIN - The House and Senate haven't agreed on how to cut school property taxes, but both chambers approved bills Tuesday that would boost their own pensions.

The House used a nonrecorded voice vote Tuesday to pass a bill to raise judicial pay and lawmakers' pensions, while Senators voted on the record with two senators casting "no" votes on similar legislation.

Since 1975, legislative pensions have been calculated as a portion of a district judge's salary.

Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, said judicial salaries need to be increased to keep experienced judges from leaving the bench for private practice. But he said he cast a "protest vote" against the bill because it links a district judge's salary to lawmakers' pension benefits.

"I'm just down on that," said Janek.

Currently, lawmakers earn $7,200 a year in pay, and retired lawmakers can begin collecting pensions at age 50 if they have served for at least 12 years.

Under the House and Senate bills, a retired official with 12 years' experience would get $6,431 more a year for a total pension of $34,500. Benefits increase with each year of service.

Gov. Rick Perry called a 30-day special session to address school property taxes and how public schools are funded.

He initially said he would not add other issues to the agenda until lawmakers reached an agreement, which they are still working to do. The session ends July 20.

Voice-vote approval

But on Monday, Perry added judicial pay to the special session proclamation, and both the House and Senate acted swiftly Tuesday, suspending rules to give the bills final passage. House Speaker Tom Craddick said the bill was passed on a voice vote because no legislator asked for a record vote.

Perry has further expanded the session to include legislation relating to eminent domain , tuition revenue bonds for university construction projects, telecommunications industry overhaul and renewable energy.

The judicial pay legislation, similar to a proposal that died in the closing days of the regular session earlier this year, would increase the state pay for a state district judge from $101,000 to $125,000 a year.

Limit on supplementary pay

Counties could continue to supplement those salaries, but only up to an additional $7,500 a year, for a total salary of $132,500.

That would mean a pay raise of only $4,000 a year for state district judges in Harris County, where county commissioners would be forced to lower their supplement from $27,500 to $7,500.

Since 2003, Harris and a few other urban counties have had no limit on how much they can add to a judge's pay to attract and retain qualified individuals.

Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, said district judges' salaries should be kept below appellate court salaries to encourage trial judges to run for higher office.

Judges on the Courts of Appeals would see their pay boosted from $107,000 to $137,500 a year, and members of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals would get their $113,000 salaries raised to $150,000.

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate approved a similar judicial pay raise bill and added a provision that would boost public funding for lawyers assigned to defend indigent criminal defendants.

That House opposed that provision - which would add $ 3to fees charged people convicted of criminal offenses, including traffic violations - during the regular session.

That new levy would be in addition to a $4 fee increase for each criminal case and a $37 increase in filing fees for each civil lawsuit to pay for judges' raises.

The additional pension payments will cost the state $4 million a year. Because the bills are somewhat different, however, a conference committee likely will be appointed to try to reach a compromise on the versions.

The pay bill also could affect the pay for Houston's mayor and City Council members.

A 1977 law sets the mayor's salary at 150 percent of a district judge's salary; while the city controller is to be paid exactly as much as a judge.

Council members' salaries are set at 40 percent of that figure.

`Simply endorse the check'

During debate Tuesday, Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio, asked if there is "any mechanism for a legislator to refuse a pension increase."

"It would be very easy for any legislator to simply endorse the check to the state of Texas," replied Hartnett.

Senate leaders defended their higher retirement benefits, even as they prepared to consider another bill that could reduce retirement benefits for teachers to address a shortfall in the Teacher Retirement System.

"I've always felt like the compensation package for legislators is out of whack," said Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.

"If I were king, we'd pass a bill that says our pay and our retirement is the same as a classroom teacher. We're not there yet, and in this short period of time the primary fact is that judges need a pay raise," Ogden said.

Teachers' retirement age

A separate bill the Senate may debate later this week would make several changes to the Teacher Retirement System, including raising the minimum retirement age to 60.

Linda Bridges, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, said the bill "is taking us backwards in our efforts to attract and retain quality teachers."

"The Teacher Retirement System deserves to be solvent. We need to pass a bill so that the Teacher Retirement System doesn't look like Social Security and we have to stand up here and say it's going to be bankrupt in 10 years," Ogden said.

Houston Chronicle:


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Texas Legislature balks at limiting eminent domain by the state. Instead, the focus is on city and county governments.

Editorial: Reassess corridor

July 12,2005
The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2005

Gov. Rick Perry's Friday announcement that he is adding consideration of eminent domain to the agenda of the 79th Texas Legislature's special session is interesting for what he left out.

"The Supreme Court's ruling would allow government to condemn your family's home, bulldoze it and build a new shopping mall or some other kind of economic development project simply to generate more tax revenue," Perry said.

"I stand with an overwhelming majority of lawmakers and citizens who believe that this starts us down a slippery slope that will lead to the erosion of Texans rights," the governor continued.

Perry was referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's recent 5-4 decision in Kelo vs. City of New London, which upheld the right of that Connecticut city to boost the local tax base by using eminent domain to aid private developers.

The governor, however, conveniently ignored the fact that he is aggressively pushing one of the largest uses of eminent domain to aid private developers in Texas history.

The constitutional amendments the Legislature is considering to limit the power of Texas cities and counties to do what New London did will not prevent the state from condemning as much as 580,000 acres of privately owned land to benefit Cintra-Zachry and later perhaps other developers, as well.

At this point, we have to acknowledge that the Texas Department of Transportation's Mike Cox caught an error in one of our earlier editorials on the Kelo decision.

The July 6 editorial, "Texas will limit eminent domain," said of the Trans-Texas Corridor that "its private developers cannot fund and build it without using eminent domain on a scale that greatly - and legitimately - worries many Texans."

Cox, also a distinguished Texas historian and member of the Texas Institute of Letters, correctly calls that statement "a major error of fact."

In his letter to the editor, printed on the right side of this page, the TxDOT communications manager explains why that statement in our editorial is technically wrong. In so doing, however, Cox completely misses the point.

We should have said, and now do, that the Trans-Texas Corridor's developers cannot build it without relying on the state of Texas to use eminent domain on a scale that greatly - and legitimately - worries many Texans. And in the process, this large-scale condemnation of privately owned property will directly benefit the private developer with whom the state has contracted to begin construction of the gargantuan new ground-transportation network.

Several members of the Texas Legislature have filed proposed constitutional amendments to prevent city and county governments from using eminent domain to benefit private developers "if a primary purpose of the taking is for economic development," as House Joint Resolution 19, sponsored by state Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, and Senate Joint Resolution 10, sponsored by Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, put it.

In a Friday e-mail to the editor of this page, the office of another amendment backer, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, explained that "the purpose of SJR 10 is to prohibit a political subdivision from taking private property for the primary purpose of private economic development. The primary purpose of the Trans-Texas Corridor is not private economic development, but, rather, development and infrastructure for public use."

We find it telling that the proposed amendments intended to prevent the abuse of eminent domain in the Lone Star State would not prohibit the state of Texas from doing what lawmakers want to prohibit local governmental entities from doing. As if we have more reason to trust our officials at the state Capitol more than we can trust our local elected officials who are our neighbors.

And the Web site of the corridor's well-organized opposition, disputes Wentworth's claim about the project's primary purpose: "It's designed to generate revenue first and provide transportation second. The corridor plan is designed to provide transportation funds, more than transportation. Rather than identify specific transportation needs and offer solutions, the plan defines funding as the need and the corridor as the solution. Accordingly it's not important where the corridor is built, as long as it generates revenue."

The corridor's proposed massive size, its routing away from the urban areas where the majority of Texans live and TxDOT's refusal to release secret details of its contract with Cintra-Zachry even when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ordered it to do so give the Corridor Watch group's claim considerable credibility.

We are also perplexed by Wentworth's missing the point about the corridor's benefits to a private developer. The e-mail from his office stated, "Any peripheral business allowed to locate on state land taken by eminent domain is just that - peripheral." The e-mail lists "gas stations, convenience stores, and restaurants that may do business in the corridor" to show what the senator means by "peripheral" businesses.

But the e-mail from Wentworth's office completely ignored Cintra-Zachry, which will benefit not peripherally but integrally and intentionally from the state's massive use of eminent domain to take more than a half-million acres of Texas land away from its private owners.

Corridor Watch suggests, "Lets amend our Texas Constitution to add this language, 'Private property shall not be taken through the use of the power of eminent domain if a primary purpose of the taking is for economic development.'" Add to that "and if it would primarily or integrally benefit private developers."

Apply the same rule to the state that many lawmakers want to impose on city and county governments, whose potential abuse of eminent domain is minuscule compared with the state's planned abuse of it for the Trans-Texas Corridor. Considering this additional language also would bring about a long-overdue full legislative reassessment of the massive, ill-advised project.

The Victoria Advocate:


TxDOT: " Private developers can't condemn private property for the Trans-Texas Corridor ." (The state will do it for them).

Editorial mistaken

July 12, 2005

Editor, the Advocate:
The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2005

Other than school finance and our worsening dry spell, the Trans-Texas Corridor is one of the most-discussed topics in the state this summer.

We are appreciative of this ongoing discussion, but public debate always comes with an unfortunate side affect: misinformation.

Your July 6 editorial, "Texas will limit eminent domain," contains a major error of fact. In referring to the corridor, the editorial has this incorrect line: "Its (the Trans-Texas Corridor's) private developers cannot fund and build it without using eminent domain on a scale that greatly - and legitimately - worries many Texans."

As TxDOT has said before, only government has the legal authority to condemn property for transportation right of way. There is no law on the books or to my knowledge even contemplated that would vest any private entity with the power to take land.

We certainly understand that many landowners are concerned about what impact the corridor will have on their property, but we have said since this project was first brought up that we will do everything possible to minimize the purchase of land for right of way.

Value and damage will be determined through the normal appraisal and compensation process, including the right to jury trial.

Beyond that, the last session of the legislature passed House Bill 2702, a measure which contains several new protections for landowners.

These include a requirement that TxDOT would pay damages to a landowner if a portion of their land is made inaccessible by the corridor.

Bottom line: Private developers can't condemn private property for the Trans-Texas Corridor, and any property acquired by the state can only be used for transportation purposes.

MIKE COX, communications manager
Texas Department of Transportation

The Victoria Advocate:


Monday, July 11, 2005

High gas prices make toll roads look even less attractive

Have gas prices reached a tipping point?

July 11, 2005

Ben Wear

Austin American-Statesman Copyright 2005

It took a while, but $2-plus gasoline finally seems to be cooling the passion we Americans have for internal combustion.

According to the Federal Highway Commission's latest monthly report, the total number of miles driven in the United States fell in April for the second month in a row. The 1.3 percent dropoff in April — the comparisons are made to the same month a year previous — comes on the heels of a half-percent drop in March.

The two-month "trend," if it can be cautiously called that, could signal an end to 10 months of dithering by American drivers, a period that roughly coincides with gasoline prices hitting the $2-a-gallon level in April 2004 and sustaining that altitude.

From May 2004 to February, driving was up over the previous year in six of those months and down in four.

Maybe we thought it was temporary, that OPEC or the Octane Fairy would make it all go away.

But as oil and gasoline prices remained high and then climbed higher still this spring, SUV sales slumped, and now, the numbers indicate, actual driving behavior is changing.

Especially in Texas.

The number of miles driven in Texas — the federal calculation is based on 4,000 monitoring stations nationwide — was down 3.2 percent in April, making us one of 34 states to see a decrease. Oklahoma saw the greatest decline, with a 5.2 percent drop.

Texas gasoline tax receipts have been down in nine of the past 12 months, including the past four. That's $17.8 million lower than the previous year, small in the context of a $7.5 billion annual Texas Department of Transportation budget but disturbing nonetheless.

All this shouldn't come as a surprise.

Surely, many of you have had some of these experiences in recent months: the partial fill-up because regular is at $2.12 rather than, say, $2.04; the crosstown errand put off because, after all, that's a $2 trip; the Hill Country jaunt not taken to save $10 in gas.

This sudden aversion to ignition could have profound public policy implications.

Not only does it mean less state and federal gas tax revenue, money that supports highway building and maintenance, but it could also sabotage the alternative: toll roads.

Much of the money for tollways, whether it's the state building them or a private partnership such as Cintra-Zachry on the Trans-Texas Corridor, comes from borrowing on the bond market.

Fewer cars mean lower revenue, or higher tolls, which can mean still fewer cars.

Bond documents for the three-road Central Texas Turnpike Project say that the revenue forecasts assumed prices at the pump would not exceed $2.50 a gallon. Investors already have rolled the dice on those roads.

But Gov. Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor of intrastate tollways is still just lines on a map. Will investors play ball in a $3-a-gallon environment?

Let's hope we don't have to find out.

Austin American-Statesman:


"Private companies are not necessarily more efficient at running roads, and their tolls amount to a regressive tax on highway building."

Private toll roads gathering speed

Cash-strapped states like the idea of highways built "without tax dollars."

July 10, 2005

Reuters News Service
Copyright 2005

SAN FRANCISCO - The next road you travel — and pay a toll to use — could be privately owned.

Looking for ways to finance highway projects without hitting the public treasury, Congress appears set to pass a proposal to encourage private ownership of new toll roads.

The provision, part of the highway spending bill now being hammered out by a Senate and House conference committee, would allow private companies to raise up to $15 billion for highway projects with bonds that are exempt from federal income taxes.

While the proposal has broad support in Washington and the business community, the idea of private highways has incited grass-roots opposition in some states, with some saying the government — not a profit-seeking company — is the proper owner of the public's roads.

Toll road owners such as Spain's Cintra and Australia's Macquarie Infrastructure Group stand to benefit from the move to private infrastructure bonds, since their tax-exempt status would keep interest rates and funding costs low.

The move would also bring lucrative fees to Wall Street banks and others for underwriting and trading tax-exempt debt.

"The time has come for this," Sen. Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican who co-sponsored the proposal, said in a telephone interview. "I think we have an excellent chance of the $15 billion bond issue coming out of conference."

Major shift

Many states faced with tight budgets have given corporations the right to build, operate and maintain roads.

States have the right to regulate toll rates or limit profits but generally give operators wide latitude to run the roads as they see fit.

Texas, California and Virginia are among the states at the forefront of the movement.

Jose Lopez De Fuentes, director of Cintra's U.S. and Latin American operation, said private road builders currently face complex regulations governing the issuance of tax-exempt bonds.

The provision expected to emerge from Congress would help Cintra raise funds to finance such projects as a proposed $7.2 billion toll road from Dallas to San Antonio. The plan, which would be the first leg of Gov. Rick Perry's ambitious Trans-Texas Corridor project, could eventually run from Oklahoma to Mexico and include freight and passenger railroads, pipelines and power lines on a 1,200-foot right of way.

Cintra's proposal, in cooperation with San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp., has triggered opposition. The Texas Farm Bureau is worried that the corridor would split landholdings and cut off access to farms and ranches. Elected officials and business groups in towns along the proposed corridor fear it would draw business away from them.

But state transportation officials are ecstatic.

"That's a pretty good deal any way you slice it," said Gaby Garcia, a spokeswoman with the Texas Department of Transportation. "They'll cover the table with $7 billion and say, 'We'll raise that money on our own without any help from you.'"

Tapping the tax rolls

But Ellen Dannin, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who has written on privatization, said private companies are not necessarily more efficient at running roads, and their tolls amount to a regressive tax on highway building.

A better solution to public underfunding of the road system may be to roll back tax cuts that are squeezing the federal budget, Dannin said.

"One of the things to ask yourself is, why doesn't the government have the money to spend on the infrastructure that we need?" she said.