Monday, March 19, 2007

Republican lawmaker is a force to be reckoned with...

Carona keeps eye on state roads

March 19, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – It's a long way from the lieutenant governor's dog house to chairmanship of one of the Senate's most powerful committees.But Sen. John Carona of Dallas has made the journey and is making the most of his elevation in the Senate's hierarchy this year.

Since taking over as leader of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee – thanks to an appointment by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst – the Republican lawmaker has made himself a force to be reckoned with in policy and planning for the state's multibillion-dollar highway needs.

He has battled with the chairman of the state transportation commission – even suggesting at one point that he step down – sharply questioned the push for more toll roads across the state and put an increasingly hot spotlight on recent 50-year contracts with foreign companies to build highways in Texas. An all-day hearing he held on toll road policies drew hundreds of angry Texans.

"I give him a lot of credit," said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who has served with Mr. Carona for several years. "He came in as chairman and decided it was time to take a hard look at our transportation system and see whether we're going down the right path."

Mr. Carona, a 51-year-old East Dallas businessman, says the only responsible way to run a committee that oversees the spending of billions of dollars is to gain as much expertise on the subject as possible and then ask lots of questions.

"I hope the result is that we'll see much better transportation policies in the future," he said.

Although he is serving his fourth term in the Senate, this is Mr. Carona's first regular session as a committee chairman.

A risky political decision in 2002 – crossing party lines in support of Democrat John Sharp over Mr. Dewhurst in the race for lieutenant governor – backfired when Mr. Dewhurst won the close contest.

As lieutenant governor and presiding officer of the Senate, Mr. Dewhurst appoints Senate committees and their chairmen – and to no one's surprise, Mr. Carona was left off the list of chairmen for Mr. Dewhurst's first term.

Mr. Carona soon delivered a gift to his office – a bright red, miniature dog house that contained the letters "CARONA," painted in white, over the opening.

But it wasn't the first time the Dallas senator was not on the best of terms with the sitting lieutenant governor.

In 1999, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry pressed Mr. Carona hard to vote for a private school voucher bill that Mr. Perry was trying to push through the Senate. Mr. Carona said no, and for several weeks, Mr. Perry refused to allow the Senate to vote on any of Mr. Carona's bills.

But his opportunity to be a key player finally came last year when Mr. Dewhurst offered him chairmanship of the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee after Sen. Todd Staples gave up the post to concentrate on his race for state agriculture commissioner.

"I felt I had earned the right to be a committee chairman, and as the lieutenant governor told me, now that I was out of his doghouse, he felt I was qualified for the job," Mr. Carona recalled with a chuckle.

Mr. Carona, the president of a Dallas-based national real estate management firm and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, said he had no particular interest in the transportation committee before his appointment. All he asked Mr. Dewhurst for was the chance to lead a "significant" Senate committee.

With the Trans-Texas Corridor angering a large number of Texans and plans for a future dominated by toll roads, he got just that.

"As the population of the state has grown, our need for transportation has become more evident, and regrettably we have fallen far behind in planning for it," he said.

Not that highways are his only concern. He has filed 131 bills this session, which is twice as many as usual. Other measures relate to such things as teacher pensions, tobacco taxes and a no-call list for cellphones. About half are related to transportation, however.

Mr. Carona, who has three sons, hopes to turn his current post into a long-term responsibility.

"If the voters in Senate District 16 allow it, and the lieutenant governor deems it appropriate, I would like to serve on this committee for several years and become what the Senate has been lacking in recent years, a true transportation expert who can work to formulate good overall policy," he said.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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