Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Senator Ogden: "There's a huge political force out there saying, 'We don't care' or 'This is too embarrassing.' "

Senator questions will of state officials to fix problems

Ogden cites problems at transportation and youth commissions, Houston college

February 28, 2007

By Laylan Copelin
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday questioned the collective will of state officials to address three controversies confronting the Legislature.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, spotlighted fiscal mismanagement at Texas Southern University, sexual abuse allegations at a Texas Youth Commission facility and the state Transportation Department's negotiations with private developers to build a system of toll roads.

"Two of them are broken," Ogden told the Austin American-Statesman. "And one is out of control."

Ogden urged that drastic measures be taken at the youth commission and Texas Southern, including conservatorship, a rarely used remedy that puts control of a state agency under a new management team.

"Fire everybody and start over," Ogden said.

As for the Transportation Department, Ogden suggested that the Legislature curb its powers to delegate construction and operation of a generation of toll roads to private contractors.

The comments were extraordinary in that Ogden, who requested the interview, seldom needs the media to make his point. His position as chief budget writer for the Senate usually requires no amplification. But his comments, and the reactions from his legislative colleagues and Gov. Rick Perry, underscored a great divide, at least on the state's transportation future.

His comments also put a spotlight on Perry, because his appointees run the three institutions.

Ogden said he spoke out because he feared that political opposition, albeit undefined, would make significant change impossible.

"There's a huge political force out there saying, 'We don't care' or 'This is too embarrassing,' " Ogden said. "What keeps the Legislature from hiding from problems? You have to shine a spotlight on it."

He urged reporters to pay greater attention to the three issues and pledged to use the appropriations process to make changes.

Ogden said he is concerned about the Transportation Department's plans to allow private contractors, for a large upfront fee, to build roads and charge tolls — perhaps forever. He said the department has as many as 21 projects under consideration, including one announced by Perry on Tuesday in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"Do we really want to be turning over state highways to private contractors?" Ogden asked.

The irony is that Ogden was the Senate author of the 2003 bill that expanded the commission's powers to construct roads.

"I'm trying to correct the sins of the past," Ogden said, adding that he is considering legislation that would end collection of tolls once a highway has been paid for. He said he is concerned about plans to use toll revenue, long after a highway is paid for, to build more roads.

He said legislators are hearing from constituents who want the agency's powers curbed.

"Every (legislative) member is paying a political price for what they are doing," Ogden said. "TxDOT needs to be more sensitive and accountable to the Legislature."

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said senators have had a hard time getting straight answers to basic questions about how much Texans will be asked to pay and where the money will go.

"Not only is TxDOT increasingly perceived as a closed, unaccountable agency," Watson wrote in an e-mail to constituents, "but its leadership appears indifferent to the widespread concern over this."

Perry's office and state Rep. Mike Krusee, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, defended the state's toll road policy.

"The Legislature, including Sen. Ogden, had denied our cities adequate funding for transportation for years," said Krusee, R-Williamson County. "If we now remove the only effective tool, it's our cities and our citizens, not TxDOT, who will be harmed, with more congestion, more pollution and less economic opportunity."

He said that to abandon the state policy would return Texas to the days of 20-year highway projects.

Krusee's legislative district includes part of Williamson County, which is in Ogden's Senate district.

Krusee noted that toll roads Texas 130, Texas 45 and the Loop 1 extension have been built since the 2003 bill that he and Ogden co-sponsored.

"It's ironic that, after the senator's district benefited with literally billions of dollars of projects, he would prevent other cities from benefiting, too," Krusee said.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said Dallas-Fort Worth officials "were ecstatic" about the toll road plan.

He said Perry expects his appointees to be responsive to the Legislature.

Further, he said, Perry's office is tackling issues at Texas Southern and the youth commission. He said Perry gave his college trustees 30 days to come up with a plan to address the university's wasteful spending and red ink.

As for the youth commission, Black said, "Everybody agrees that it's an intolerable situation that must be corrected."

But conservatorship, he said, "is the most drastic step," Black said. "And it should be the last step."

The controversies

Texas Youth Commission: Two former administrators at the West Texas State School for troubled males 11 to 21 years old have been accused of sexually abusing youths in 2004 and 2005. Sen. Juan 'Chuy' Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said the problem is statewide, and Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said he thinks the agency tried to cover up the problems.

Texas Southern University: The historically black university in Houston is asking for $25 million in emergency appropriations because of fiscal mismanagement. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on a former president's house while the basements of classroom buildings flooded. The athletic department has overspent its budget $2 million. Gov. Rick Perry has given regents 30 days to come up with a plan to fix the problems.

Texas Department of Transportation: The agency has steered into controversy by negotiating agreements with private developers to build roads and charge tolls. Its critics question the leasing or selling of state assets to private enterprise.

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