Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Rep. Chisum: "Selling highways is not politically correct in this state. I don't care how much you get for it."

Budget add-ons would give lawmakers sway over tolls

'Riders' offer second way to skin tollway cat if other legislation falters.

March 28, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Looking to rein in a Texas Department of Transportation that one powerful legislator says has "run amok," the Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed measures Tuesday that would give legislative leaders direct control over some toll road policies.

The riders attached to Senate Bill 1, the Senate's version of the state's next two-year budget, would give legislators unhappy with the Transportation Department what amounts to a veto-proof mechanism for rolling back the agency's toll road powers.

Dozens of bills have been filled this session with that in mind. But with toll road advocate Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, in charge of the House Transportation Committee and tollway supporter Gov. Rick Perry wielding a veto pen, it's possible that few, if any, of those bills will become law.

Putting similar controls in the budget, which is the only legislation lawmakers must pass and Perry must sign to avoid bringing state government to a halt, would solve that problem.

The budget riders, among other things, would require the Transportation Department to get approval from the Legislative Budget Board to:
  • Enter into "comprehensive development agreements" with private companies to build and operate tollways.
  • Include in such agreements non-compete clauses that trigger state payments to those companies if the state makes highway expansions and reduces tollway revenue.
  • Spend any money paid to the state by the private companies under such contracts, such as the billion-dollar-plus payments dangled by Spanish tollway operator Cintra.
The Legislative Budget Board has six members: the lieutenant governor, the House speaker, and the chairmen and vice chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees, which write the budget.

State Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, the Finance Committee chairman and author of the bill riders, was asked whether the measures in effect put the budget board in charge of the Texas Transportation Commission. The five-member commission is appointed by the governor and has been aggressive — overly so, in the view of many legislators — in using the powers granted it by the Legislature in the past three sessions.

"You could conclude that," Ogden said. "My intent is just to provide more oversight."

He said that this new, more activist role for the budget board — assuming the riders survive negotiations with the House over the huge budget bill — might mean the board's six leaders would have to convene with some regularity when the Legislature takes its typical 19-month hiatus between regular sessions.

But Ogden said it was necessary "until we're satisfied TxDOT is acting in the best interest of the State of Texas."

Will the riders survive on the House side?

State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said Tuesday that he wasn't familiar with specifics of the Senate budget riders. But he is among more than 100 House sponsors of a bill that would ban private road contracts with Texas for two years.

"Selling highways is not politically correct in this state," Chisum said. "I don't care how much you get for it. . . . When you have an agency that's run amok, you have to exercise the oversight authority of the Legislature."; 445-3698

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