Friday, March 23, 2007

"A brutal course on the often disingenuous ways of the Texas Legislature. "

Stopping toll roads not so simple when the Legislature is involved


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

As a spate of state toll-road proposals came to light — especially plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor — Texas got thousands of new political activists.

Suddenly, people who hadn't done much more than vote were building e-mail lists, sending out alerts and even knocking on doors, attending meetings organizing rallies and confronting elected officials.

Hold on, folks, because you are about to get a brutal course on the often- disingenuous ways of the Texas Legislature. And hopefully, you won't become so embittered and discouraged that you will stop trying to influence state government.

After all, it is widespread political "inactivism" that has allowed toll road plans to develop.

Because the Legislature meets only once every two years for 140 days, during which thousands of bills are considered, few noticed laws approved in 2003 and 2005 that authorized the Texas Department of Transportation to cut deals with private-sector interests to build toll roads on state-owned land.

But as details of the Trans-Texas Corridor became known, people from very disparate constituencies started to act.

The TTC is an ambitious 50-year plan that will forever change Texas. The state will take thousands of square miles of land in quarter-mile-wide swaths for the construction of multi-use "transportation corridors." This land will be leased to private interests that will build toll roads, railroads and utility easements at their expense in exchange for many decades of toll and lease revenue.

Different groups are alarmed by different parts of the TTC.

Farmers and ranchers fear losing their land or having it bisected, and others worry about ecological damage.

Others reject being doubly taxed by fuel taxes and tolls, and many oppose giving leaseholders noncompete agreements that will limit expansion of free roads. There is also concern that only foreign interests are bidding for TTC tollways.

Perhaps for varying reasons, thousands of TTC opponents packed TxDOT hearings throughout Texas.

Shortly after the Legislature convened, the anti-tollers were encouraged when several anti-TTC bills were filed, especially Senate Bill 1267, which was filed by Sen. Robert Nichols, a former member of the Transportation Commission.

It would slap a two-year moratorium on highway privatization deals. As more senators signed on as co-sponsors, and more representatives joined to co-sponsor an identical House bill, the anti-tollers followed closely until 25 of Texas' 30 senators and 105 of the 150 House members were on board.

"It's veto proof!" the new activists cheered.

Well, that may have been true were the bills in Congress, but for legislators to override a Texas governor's veto is so unusual that it hasn't happened since 1979, when they overrode Gov. Bill Clements' rejection of — get this — a bill approving changes made to hunting regulations by the Comal County Commissioners Court.

It is all in the rules. Since our Legislature only meets 140 days, and doesn't pass any laws during the first 60 days unless the governor declares something an emergency, all real lawmaking is limited to a session's last 80 days. And for a bill to become law, it must get committee approval in each chamber — stumbling block No. 1 — be read three times and voted on twice.

If two versions of a bill are approved, a House-Senate conference committee usually eats up another five days or more resolving differences before both chambers must vote on it again.

Only then can bills be sent to the governor, who gets 10 days during the session to sign them, let them become law without his signature or veto them. But the governor gets 20 days to decide on bills sent in a session's final 10 days.

So, he can simply wait until for the session to end before exercising a veto, and the bill's sponsors — regardless of their number — will simply have to try again in two years.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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