Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"What keeps the Legislature from hiding from problems?"

Finance chairman warns of political force against reform

February 27, 2007

By Laylan Copelin
Postcards from the Lege
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2007

Fearing that state officials lack the collective will to act, the Senate Finance Committee chairman said this morning that three state agencies must be reined in despite the embarrassment it may cause.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, cited the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Youth Commission and Texas Southern University as severe problems that he fear will be swept under the Capitol rug.

“Two of them are broken,” he said. “And one is out of control.”

In an interview with the American-Statesman, Ogden warned that political forces were trying to keep lawmakers from dealing with the issues to avoid embarrassing the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry.

He said he was speaking out to put a spotlight on the problems of fiscal mismanagement at Texas Southern University in Houston, sexual abuse allegations at a Texas Youth Commission facility and the transportation department’s negotiations with private developers to build and toll a system of roads.

“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.

“If I was king, TYC and Texas Southern would be in conservatorship — that means fire everybody and start over,” Ogden said. He predicted there would be more resignations at TYC — the executive director quit last week — and said he believes there is evidence of a cover-up at the agency.

The allegations of sex abuse at a TYC facility in West Texas are “as bad as it gets,” the senator said. “Isn’t this what the lieutenant governor it talking about giving the death penalty for?”

The powerful senator said the transportation department has “too many tools in their arsenal” to construct highways and the Legislature should take some of them back.

Ogden said he is concerned about the 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.

“Do we really want to be turning over state highways to private contractors?” Ogden said.

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

“I’m trying to correct the sins of the past,” Ogden said.

He is considering legislation that would force the tolls to go away once a highway is paid for. He said he is concerned with plans to use toll revenue, long after a highway is paid for, to build more roads.

He said the Legislature is 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.”

The executive director of the Texas Youth Commission resigned last week after internal review found that agency officials had ignored, for more than a year, staff complaints that administrators at a West Texas State School had molested young inmates.

Texas Southern University is asking for $25 million in emergency appropriations because of fiscal mismanagement, including hundreds of thousands of dollars inappropriately spent on the president’s house while the basements of classroom buildings are flooded and the athletic department has overspent its budget by $2 million.

The transportation department has steered the state into controversy with plans to execute the governor’s plans for the Trans Texas Corridor by negotiating agreements with private developers to build the roads and charge tolls.

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.statesman.com

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