Saturday, April 21, 2007

Moratorium bill must be on Gov. Perry's desk by May 16 to give House and Senate time to override his expected veto

Toll road battle draws near


Fort worth Star-Telegram (Austin Bureau)
Copyright 2007

Measures that would slam on the brakes on the construction of new private toll roads for at least two years have won overwhelming approval in both chambers of the Legislature, but insiders say it's too soon to declare one of Gov. Rick Perry's centerpiece initiatives dead.

"It's fair to say that bill is a sitting duck for a veto," said Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a political newsletter, in Austin. "The moratorium has wide support in both chambers, and both chambers are keenly aware that they need to get the bill to the governor pretty fast if they have any hope of overriding a veto."

Recent history has shown that bills killed by a gubernatorial veto tend to stay dead. First, it takes two-thirds of both houses to override a veto. And second, because so much legislation remains bottled up until the final days of a legislative session, lawmakers are often long gone from Austin after the veto hammer has dropped.

Perry has not said whether he would veto either Senate Bill 1267, which passed the upper chamber Thursday, or House Bill 1892, which passed the lower chamber last week. But he has said repeatedly that he intends to push aggressively for toll roads to be built in the planned Trans Texas Corridor unless someone can show him an alternative to alleviate the state's ever-worsening traffic congestion.

"His position has been clear from the get-go: If you have a better option, bring it forward. Otherwise, let's build the toll roads," Perry's spokesman Ted Royer said. "But this state is adding 1,000 people a day. Doing nothing for two years is not an option."

Private toll roads can be built faster than the state can construct highways because revenues from the tax on gasoline and from the federal government have been insufficient in recent years to keep up with demand, the governor's office has said. Critics have said that the state should raise the gas tax, but legislation to do that is going nowhere this session.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, whose moratorium bill won unanimous Senate approval, said his measure would not be the death knell for toll roads, which means the governor would not necessarily veto it.

Like the bill that passed in the House, the moratorium would apply only to private toll roads. Most of the projects on the drawing board for Dallas-Fort Worth would not be affected, he said. Nichols said his motivation is to give the state time to decide whether it should let a private company based in Spain operate private toll roads for 50 years and to let that company penalize the state if Texas decides to build roads that would compete with the tollways. "It's all about giving us adequate breathing time," Nichols said.

But if the Legislature wants to make sure it keeps that breathing time by avoiding a veto, it had better move fast. Both chambers must agree on a bill and have it on Perry's desk by May 16. That way, if the governor does veto it, both chambers would have time to try to override the veto before the legislative session expires May 28.

Nichols said his bill, or one of a handful of others with similar features, could easily work its way through the legislative mill before May 16. And he added that it would not be difficult to round up the two-thirds majority in both houses needed to override the veto.

If the scenario plays out, it would be the first time since 1979 for the Legislature to override a governor's veto.

Ross Ramsey, editor of the political newsletter Texas Weekly, said lawmakers have not been reluctant this year to pick a fight with Perry. The Senate unanimously passed a measure urging the abolition of the Perry-appointed board of directors of the Texas Youth Commission, and a bill that would nullify the governor's order that schoolgirls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease has widespread legislative support.

"If ever there's been a Legislature in the mood to bust a governor, it's this one," Ramsey said.

But Nichols said he hopes that a showdown with Perry over toll roads can be avoided. He said he supports toll projects, but not necessarily under the formula laid out in the Trans Texas Corridor.

"The governor wants to fix the transportation system, and so do I," Nichols said.

John Moritz, 512-476-4294

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