Monday, January 16, 2006

"Should legislators even serve on the CAMPO board?"

A familiar newcomer for CAMPO

January 16, 2006

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

In case you missed it, former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson was elected to the Texas Senate a couple of weeks ago.

Well, not exactly. That's actually when the filing period for the 2006 election ended. Watson drew no Democratic primary challenger, and no Republicans are running. He will have an opponent in November, Libertarian Rock Howard. But a Libertarian last won a Texas legislative spot in . . . well, never, actually.

So, it's Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, come next January. The transportation connection to this is that Watson will succeed Gonzalo Barrientos, also a Democrat, who has been chairman of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board for two decades.

I used to describe this board as "little-known" or "obscure." Then, in July 2004, the group of 23 legislators, city council members and county commissioners authorized charging tolls on everything but the drive-through at Wendy's and was obscure no more. So it matters who runs it. And who serves on it.

Which brings up a longstanding question: Should legislators even serve on the CAMPO board? Around the state, on the boards of the seven other such planning organizations in metro areas, they generally don't. Five (including Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth) have no legislators, San Antonio has one legislator among its 19 members, and El Paso has six lawmakers on its 25-member board.

CAMPO, on the other hand, has 10 legislators, or 43 percent. Anti-toll folks began to grumble about the surfeit of legislators last year mostly because one of them, state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, wrote the 2003 state law that made the toll plan possible. Krusee then orchestrated the 16-7 vote in favor of tolls.

The logic breaks down a little, however, when you look at that vote. Five of the seven no votes were legislators. Take away all 10 of them, and the vote was still 11-2 in favor of the toll plan.

This argument predates tolls. In a consultant's study of CAMPO five years ago, the authors noted that in their interviews with sitting board members and civic leaders, some said having all these legislators was "undesirable. However, it was not easy for us to get to the root cause of these impressions."

Basically, the argument is that council members and commissioners hear from the public all the time and thus should decide which roads to build. Maybe so. But the legislators are the ones governing the state budget, and that's where the big money is for transportation. Whatever. At this point, there's no momentum for kicking them off.

Which brings us back to the senator-to-be. Watson, who served on CAMPO for four years as mayor, didn't want to participate in speculation about taking possession of Barrientos' CAMPO gavel, calling "that kind of determination premature." But as mayor, Watson was aggressive in rounding up local money to persuade the state to build more roads here, so count on his being more than a dabbler in transportation.

"As state senator," Watson said, "I look forward to being in the big middle of it."

Getting There appears Mondays. For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: