Friday, November 17, 2006

"Asking lawmakers to show greater discipline on highway funding is a job best left to St. Jude."

St. Jude of politics is readying for fight over highway money


Jaime Castillo
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

If I didn't know better, I would swear state Sen. Jeff Wentworth is trying to become the St. Jude of the Texas Legislature.

Not that he was looking, but politics' budding patron of lost causes may have found a worthy issue that actually has less chance of becoming law than his biennial attempt to depoliticize the redistricting process.

And that's saying something.

Many readers are probably aware that Wentworth files a bill every two years to create an independent redistricting commission that would take the power to redraw political lines away from state lawmakers.

Wentworth has credibility on the issue because, as a Republican, he continues to propose the bill at a time when his own party controls the levers in Austin.

But, while the idea makes sense, asking Democrats and Republicans to give up the right to exact gerrymandered revenge on each other is like asking a hungry dog to stop eating halfway through an opened box of Milk-Bones.

Despite similar long odds, frustrated motorists everywhere will likely honk for hope once they hear about Wentworth's latest cause, a bill that would keep lawmakers from spending state highway funds on anything but highway construction and maintenance.

You might be asking: Do grown-up legislators actually need to be told that highway funds should go for highways?


Since 1986, about $9.3 billion has been diverted from the state highway fund for non-highway things such as tourism packages and state historical and arts commissions.

The Department of Public Safety, which patrols the state's often traffic-choked highways, also is funded through highway dollars.

It's enough to make Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson violate Ronald Reagan's commandment of not speaking ill of other Republicans.

Larson, who has criticized the state's GOP leadership for being quick to support toll roads after creating "a self-fulfilling highway funding shortfall," recently fired off letters to Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick.

As of this week, Craddick was the only one who had responded. In a nutshell, the speaker respectfully told Larson not to hold his breath.

"If the Legislature chooses not to utilize (gas tax) revenue for non-transportation infrastructure needs, then the Legislature would be forced to either cut other programs or raise revenue via increased taxes or increased fees," Craddick wrote.

Larson characterized the response as "somewhat disappointing."

"I've been in elected office 15 years, and I wouldn't send a letter like that to one of my constituents," he said.

"What I'm reading into that letter is the speaker saying, 'Yes, you caught us with our hands in the cookie jar, but we're going to continue to eat those cookies.'"

Meanwhile, Wentworth and the bill's House sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Robert Puente, say they are cautiously optimistic that some progress can be made on the legislation.

But as long as there is no political will in Austin to raise the gas tax for the first time since 1991, asking lawmakers to show greater discipline on redistricting and highway funding is a job best left to St. Jude.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: