Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"Todd Staples never voted against a single bill regarding the Trans-Texas Corridor."

Toll roads top issue in race for agriculture job

Candidates argue about who is most opposed to Trans-Texas Corridor.

November 01, 2006

By A.J. Bauer
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

The Texas Department of Agriculture might have nothing to do with the Trans-Texas Corridor, but that hasn't stopped it from becoming one of the most contentious issues of this year's race for agriculture commissioner.

The race pits Democrat Hank Gilbert against state Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine. Libertarian Clay Woolam is also running.

Both Staples and Gilbert are East Texas cattlemen, and both oppose the Trans-Texas Corridor, a 4,000-mile plan for tollways, railroads and utilities lines proposed by Gov. Rick Perry that will require governmental acquisition of thousands of acres of private property.

But Gilbert has been painting Staples as a supporter of the corridor, an accusation that has both candidates fighting each other for who is the true corridor-opposition candidate.

Gilbert claims Staples' opposition to the corridor is insincere. He cites the senator's record of supporting the legislation that established the corridor — a broad transportation bill that the Senate unanimously passed in 2003.

"Staples never voted against a single bill regarding the Trans-Texas Corridor," Gilbert said.

However Staples, who has been endorsed by myriad agricultural groups including the anti-corridor Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, authored the Senate version of a corridor "cleanup" bill in 2005.

Staples' bill required a public vote for all conversions of free roads to toll roads and also limited the possible uses of government-taken land to only those that "directly benefit users of a state highway toll project."

Gene Hall, spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau, said Staples' bill also allowed landowners to participate in franchising agreements for businesses built on property the government takes from them for the corridor.

Gilbert alleges that the 2005 "cleanup" bills only restored a few restrictions on the condemnations of private land but will still lead to vast land-grabs of some of the state's prime farming and ranching land.

Hall said the corridor's need for governmental acquisition of vast amounts of private property, a great deal of which is land used in agricultural production, causes the high opposition to the corridor among farmers and ranchers.

"Really the corridor doesn't have anything to do with the agriculture department," Hall said. "But no one in agriculture doesn't consider it of prime import."

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said campaigning on a highly visible issue, even if the candidate has little control over it, is a common tactic of down-ballot statewide races.

"For example, attorney general candidates always run on a law-and-order theme even if they have little to do with it," Jillson said. "People think the position must be concerned with law and order, so candidates feel they must speak to those issues."

Jillson said Staples is in the uncomfortable position of essentially running on Perry's Republican ticket even though he opposes the governor's policy on the corridor.

"He's trying to say to [rural voters] 'You normally vote Republican. I know you're nervous about the corridor and I have some issues with it, too. I'll raise these concerns with the governor and he'll listen to me,' " Jillson said.

Despite the agriculture commissioner's lack of power over the issue, both Staples and Gilbert say, if elected, they plan on being the voice of the agriculture community against the problems associated with the corridor. Jillson said they have little other choice.

"Anything that impacts rural Texans should be the concern of the agriculture commissioner," Jillson said. "And right now, that's loss of farm land to the Trans-Texas Corridor."

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