Friday, April 27, 2007

"A supermajority said 'no' to TxDOT's arrogance and... has just placed... a rogue agency in a box."

Senate votes overwhelmingly to stall private toll roads


Gary Scharrer
Austin bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — A strong Senate vote Friday likely will force a showdown between Texas lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry over toll roads and transportation issues.

The state Senate voted 27-4 on a transportation bill that includes a two-year moratorium on private company toll roads and other highway-building restrictions that Perry opposes, which could trigger his veto.

If so, lawmakers are ready to try to override his veto in a power battle not seen in the state Capitol since 1990 when the Legislature narrowly failed to override a Gov. Bill Clements veto of a school finance bill.

"Unfortunately, there is a fundamental disagreement between the Legislature and the governor about the future transportation policy of our state," said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. "This bill is the last chance we have to address that."

Once the House passes the Senate's bill, which is expected to happen early next week, Perry said he will look at it but added that he opposes any effort that "shuts down road construction, kills jobs, harms air quality, prevents access to federal highway dollars, and creates an environment within local government that is ripe for political corruption."

"The Legislature claims Texas needs a moratorium on private financing of toll roads, yet seeks to exempt every privately planned toll road on the drawing board from their moratorium," Perry said. "The Legislature states that we need to pause and reconsider public private partnerships to build roads, yet expands this concept by granting this exact same authority to local toll road authorities all over the state."

Several transportation bills are pending, but this one would give county and regional toll way authorities more road-building authority and would require the Texas Department of Transportation to provide state-owned right of way to the public tollway authorities and free access to state highways.

It also would reduce private company toll road contracts from 70 to 40 years, ease some of the restrictions in those contracts and give the public more access to information about the Trans-Texas Corridor project.

Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, author of the House version, said he would accept changes to his bill. Smith wants to send the bill to Perry next week, giving lawmakers time to try to override a veto before the Legislature adjourns May 28.

Both Smith and Williams expressed hope Perry would not veto the bill.

"Obviously, it's a very popular piece of legislation from the Legislature that will be going over there," Smith said.

The dissenting senators said they support the moratorium on private company toll roads but balked at changing state transportation policy by giving more power to local groups such as the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

"We are acting almost like a lynch mob, and we are not thinking about the implications of what we are doing," Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, warned.

But most legislators have soured on the state's transportation department and Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan that relies heavily on private company toll roads and long-term contracts involving hundreds of billions of dollars in profit for those companies.

Terri Hall of San Antonio, founder and director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, called the Senate vote a clear and powerful message to Perry.

"A supermajority said 'no' to TxDOT's arrogance and power plays and has just placed what the public considers a rogue agency in a box," she said. "The governor would be wise not to try and let them back out with a veto, since it's clear it'll be overturned."

It's rare for the Legislature to muster the two-thirds majority vote in each chamber necessary to override a veto. That last time it happened was in 1979 on a bill allowing Comal County to block hunting and fishing regulations.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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