Friday, January 26, 2007

"There’s still time to rethink the toll roads if legislators decide to enact a moratorium."

Low-Hanging Fruit

Texas faces obvious problems that the 80th Lege should fix. It probably won't.

January 26, 2007

by David Pasztor
The Texas Observer
Copyright 2007

On the frigid day in Texas that Rick Perry was sworn in for the term that will make him our longest-serving governor, one in five Texas children did not have health insurance. By the best estimate available, Texas public school districts needed nearly $10 billion to repair or replace decaying buildings. Texas power plants, factories, and cars continued to pump out more greenhouse gases than any other state, or most countries, for that matter.

David Dewhurst took his second oath as lieutenant governor, vowing to enact a death penalty for repeat sex offenders. At that moment, state prisons were already overflowing, including tens of thousands of mentally ill inmates who have received little in the way of treatment before or after landing in jail. In fact, the state of Texas is now trying to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that one of them—a diagnosed schizophrenic who represented himself at trial wearing a cowboy costume—is just sane enough to be executed.

Tom Craddick won his third term as House speaker after fighting back an insurgent challenge to his leadership fueled in part by growing disgust over the undue influence of rich campaign contributors, whose largesse has been rewarded with limits on lawsuits and protections for homebuilders. The flow of money continues to course unchecked through Texas politics.
Tom Craddick

While the strong have fared well under the leadership of these three men—and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate—the weak have not. State highways are being handed over to multinational corporations to run as profit-making toll roads, but there is not enough money to patch schoolhouse roofs or help battered women hire lawyers when they need protective orders. Many poor Texans who qualify for food stamps and other aid funded by the federal government still don’t get help, because Texas can’t or won’t deliver the federal dollars.

There is, in short, no lack of obvious, substantive problems in Texas that could be fixed.

And for now there is little chance they will be.

Streets of Gold

Since 2001, a clique of powerful Texas officials and their friends in the business community have been laying the legal and legislative groundwork to build a network of superhighways and toll roads. One of the most ambitious road-building plans in the world, the for-pay highways will suck up thousands of acres of farmland, induce development, and do little to reduce congestion along the state’s most glutted highways, most notably Interstate 35.

In the process, thousands of miles of state roads that have already been paid for by motorists through gasoline taxes will be turned over to multinational firms that will collect tolls for the next 50 years or so. The deals have drawn plenty of criticism, but with the help of state legislators and a fleet of Madison Avenue-styled public relations firms, highway officials so far have succeeded in steamrolling the opposition. The current leadership authored the plan and has shown little willingness to back away.

Gov. Perry with the thumbs up

New highway proposals are on the drawing board, and portions of State Highway 130, which will likely be the first leg of what’s called the Trans-Texas Corridor 35, are already open. Perry, Round Rock’s Republican state Rep. Mike Krusee, and Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, are the three officials primarily responsible for pushing this new world order.

In the coming weeks, the Texas Department of Transportation—an agency with annual revenues greater than the entire income of some states—will be back at the Legislature trying to widen its powers. It will also be asking for millions to fund a new entity called the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund, which basically will help two of the largest rail carriers in Texas—Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. and Union Pacific Corp.—upgrade their rail lines and cash in on the staggering growth in freight transportation projected for the next 10 years or so.

TXDOT wants to lift the cap on the 50- to 70-year contracts so it can negotiate more contracts lasting for as long as 100 years with multinationals from Spain, Australia, and Sweden. TXDOT also wants to amend state laws so it can perform its own environmental reviews and approvals. It might seem like an obvious conflict of interest for a department whose main function is to bulldoze and pave, but TXDOT says it could use the latitude to build projects faster, thereby reducing congestion, improving air quality, and enhancing safety.

Though deals are being drawn up, contracts signed, and concrete poured, there’s still time to rethink the toll roads if legislators decide to enact a moratorium and demand an open and honest debate with the public about how to address transportation gridlock. Then voters could be allowed to decide by what road they prefer to travel. That, as the poet says, may make all the difference.

The Best Leadership Money Can Buy

A good argument can be made that Texas’ inability to deal with its pressing problems stems from the ironclad grip a few contributors and lobbyists hold over the state’s policy agenda. The influence of their money drives the privatization debate and is felt in most every policy area, from education to transportation and electricity to social services. In one small example, most Texans, including most legislators, are opposed to school vouchers. The fear is that they will take money away from already underfunded public schools. Yet in 2005, Speaker Craddick scheduled a vote on a voucher bill. Might this have had something to do with the fact that the state’s biggest voucher proponent, hospital-bed magnate James Leininger, is also one of the GOP’s biggest political donors? Most recently, in the 2005-2006 election cycle, Leininger gave more than $5 million to Texas candidates. He’s not the only one. Republican home builder Bob Perry—the biggest political donor in the state and nation—gave $6.7 million to Texas candidates and political action committees, according to campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice.

A number of simple steps could instantly diminish the power of money over sound public policy in Texas. The first would be an aggregate limit on individual contributions. Texas is one of the few states that have no limits on the size of campaign contributions, allowing mega-donors like Perry and Leininger to swamp an election with an endless flow of cash. During the 2004 election cycle, 87 individuals or couples donated more than $100,000 each to state candidates and committees. This accounted for 10 percent of all political donations. TPJ is part of a campaign-reform coalition that has suggested a modest contribution cap of $100,000 per election cycle. While legislation has been filed along these lines, with the current leadership it’s not likely to prosper.

In June 2006, state District Judge Mike Lynch tossed out a felony indictment against the Texas Association of Business. Lynch ruled that TAB had not expressly advocated the election or defeat of candidates when it spent $1.9 million in secret corporate money on “issue” ads in the 2002 election cycle. Lynch wrote in his order that most “non-technical, common-sense people” would see the ads as clearly violating the law, but that “these statutes and this indictment aren’t equipped to do the job [of keeping corporate money out of elections].” Unless the law is strengthened to strictly prohibit the use of corporate money for electioneering, business interests like TAB will once again use undisclosed corporate money to smear candidates with whom they disagree.

Finally, more legislation would probably not be necessary if Texas had a functioning Ethics Commission. Unfortunately, to call the current commission dysfunctional and ineffectual is charitable. It is a paper tiger, underfunded and, worse, loathe to enforce the law or improve upon it through its rule-making authority. At a minimum, legislators should create a separate law-enforcement division for the commission. They should also provide for a budget based on a funding formula that is independent of the Legislature. Finally, the eight-member commission should be abolished and replaced with one accountable executive director. As with most of what Texas desperately needs fixed, the state’s leaders won’t likely give the keys to the henhouse back to the public this session without a fight.

Additional writing and reporting by Dave Mann, Eileen Welsome, Forrest Wilder, and Jake Bernstein.

© 2007 The Texas Observer: