Monday, September 04, 2006

New Governor would change the makeup of the Texas Transportation Commission

Openings leave opening for Perry foes

September 04, 2006

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

If one of Rick Perry's trio of serious electoral challengers does manage to beat him in November, they likely will have an immediate opportunity to change things in transportation. And the governor has only himself to blame.

Perry, for reasons that aren't totally clear, has yet to name replacements for two departed or overdue-to-depart members of the Texas Transportation Commission. That decision not to decide, along with the coming end of commission Chairman Ric Williamson's term Feb. 1, means that a Gov. Grandma or a Gov. Kinky or a Gov. No-Nickname-Bell likely would be able to instantly appoint a majority of the five-member board. And that board, which governs the Texas Department of Transportation, has a profound effect on what happens with Texas roads and rails.

One could safely assume that any of those main Perry foes would name commissioners who would stop the toll road stampede.

Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville businessman, resigned from the commission in June 2005 to run for the Texas Senate. Houstonian Johnnie Johnson's commission term ended Feb. 1, 2005, 19 months ago. Johnson, who is ready to move on, has been serving in overtime since then.

Perry could have named a Johnson replacement during the 2005 legislative session and, assuming the Senate confirmed his nominee, would have had a Perry-ite in that position until 2011. As for Nichols, the Senate would have been able to confirm a replacement during one of the three special sessions called since he left, and that person could have served until 2009. Had Perry named one.

So, why hasn't he?

Perry wasn't available to ask last week. The folks close to him who were available gave polite but not completely illuminating answers.

The focus, his spokeswoman Kathy Walt said, "is on getting the right people and the best people." Well, glad to hear that. But in 19 months they couldn't find that magical best and right person to replace Johnson, or 14 months for Nichols? I mean, Texas has 22 million people, and I hear a lot of them are Republican. Perry's office has 118 applicants on file.

Williamson, who goes back two decades with Perry to their legislative days, said finding commissioners is more difficult than it might appear. Williamson said the person would have to have no financial connections to building roads, be 100 percent on board with Perry's philosophy and be willing "to serve full-time." At an annual salary of about $15,900.

Besides, Williamson said, Perry feels the four still on the job are nicely advancing his agenda, which they most certainly are.

Still, 19 months?

Maybe this is just a sign Perry is confident he'll win, which would render all this moot. He could reappoint Williamson, who said he's willing to do whatever Perry asks. Then, when two of these apparently unique individuals turn up, fill the open slots.

But what if, say, Kinky Friedman wins? Maybe his musical sidekick Little Jewford would like the job.

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