Monday, April 23, 2007

SB 1929 is 95 pages: "Senators... are suspicious of what might be lurking in the bill that they can't easily divine."

Big toll road bill has lawmakers nervous

April 23, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Legislators, it appears, are tiring of the Christmas tree approach to transportation lawmaking. They pretty much just want a large piece of wood, stripped of limbs, and maybe a chance to take a swing with it at the Texas Department of Transportation.

That is not very good news for state Sen. John Carona of Dallas and state Rep. Mike Krusee of Williamson County. The two Republicans, transportation committee chairmen in their chambers, have put together a huge Douglas fir festooned with all manner of changes to how the state does toll roads, or doesn't do them.

The tree — Senate Bill 1929, carried by Carona and introduced in his committee last week — includes plenty for the toll-phobic: a Swiss cheese moratorium on private toll road contracts, restrictions on how generous the Transportation Department can be in those contracts, a reduced limit on how long those agreements can run and a ban on converting free roads to toll roads.

But it also includes some expansions of the state's toll road powers and a curious section in which the notoriously big-footed Transportation Department would give away power to local transportation planning organizations. The agency wanted this, for murky reasons that last week had senators and everyone else playing armchair TxDOTologist.

And at 95 pages, SB 1929 is just really long. The senators I talked to last week, after voting for bulky transportation bills in 2003 and 2005 that they now regret supporting, are suspicious of what might be lurking in the bill that they can't easily divine. Or that good stuff (from their point of view) might be pulled when the bill goes to conference committee in the session's feverish final days, leaving mostly just what Krusee and the Transportation Department really want.

Carona said last week that he'll bring the bill up in his committee today and, after what will surely be some amending (several senators don't like that local planning organization part), it might pass. But a senator told me (on the QT) that the bill will probably die in committee.

If so, or if it dies later, that would leave those large pieces of wood, the dozens of single-shot bills parked at different points along the legislative highway. That includes the exception-laden private toll road moratorium, which in different bills passed the House and Senate. And the Senate version of the budget bill includes several provisions slapping back at toll roads.

Right now, the roster of moving bills doesn't include indexing the gas tax to inflation, which hasn't even gotten a hearing. Krusee, sitting in with Carona's committee last week, speculated that a gas tax increase might make it through only as an ornament on the Carona-Krusee Christmas tree. So, maybe that helps keep SB 1929 in play. Or maybe not. Or perhaps Gov. Rick Perry, as a lawmaker told me, will soon endorse indexing.

Legislating, and watching legislating, is like playing simultaneous, multilevel chess. You have to be really smart to pass bills or to predict what will pass.

At this point, I'm just smart enough to refrain from predicting.

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