Thursday, May 17, 2007

House finds the Senate's milquetoast moratorium hard to swallow.

Hitchhikers bogging down toll road bill

House treating Senate legislation as vehicle to move other stalled measures.

May 17, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2007

Senate Bill 792's sprint through the Legislature has run into some head winds.

On Wednesday, odds appeared increasingly slim that the key toll road bill will make it to Gov. Rick Perry's desk in time to avert a veto on another bill that SB 792 would replace.

And when it does get there, it probably will be carrying a fair amount of baggage.

SB 792, which passed the Senate unanimously Monday and then shot through bill sponsor Rep. Wayne Smith's County Affairs Committee that evening, is on today's House calendar.

A growing number of House members, according to Smith's office, have begun to regard the must-pass toll road legislation as a handy vehicle on which to hang dead or dying bills.

By one estimate, there could be several dozen suggested amendments offered when the bill comes up today.

"I would hope that we could pass 792 without amendments, but that's not likely," Smith, a Baytown Republican, said Wednesday. "I hope that the members understand that their amendments should fit the spirit of the bill."

Translated, that means: Don't try to put anything on there that Perry wouldn't like.

Given the rowdy nature of the House, and public pressure about toll roads, that might be asking too much.

For instance, Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said Wednesday that he couldn't support the bill without an amendment saying that no Trans-Texas Corridor projects would be built west of Interstate 35. Given that the Trans-Texas Corridor plan of cross-state tollways, railroads and utility lines is Perry's centerpiece transportation policy, that amendment is not likely to sit well with the governor.

"We could end up with another bill on the governor's desk that he'll veto" if members push too far with changes, Smith said.

Perry's office said he has until Friday at 11:59 p.m. to sign or veto House Bill 1892, or let it become law without his signature.

That bill contains many of the same elements as SB 792 — a partial moratorium on private toll road contracts, new limits on the terms of such contracts, sections giving local toll road agencies first shot at turnpikes in their areas — but was judged lacking by Perry.

He made it clear he would veto the bill and raised the specter of calling the Legislature into special session this summer if HB 1892 wasn't replaced with a bill to his liking.

Senate Bill 792, which began life this session as HB 1892's twin, became that vehicle.

Senators, the governor's office and the Texas Department of Transportation spent several days working out the compromise passed by the Senate on Monday. Perry pronounced himself satisfied with that version.

Supporters hoped to run the bill through the House unchanged this week in time for Perry to sign it Friday, before the veto deadline for HB 1892. Under that scenario, HB 1892 would then be recalled from Perry by a legislative resolution and laid to rest.

But the sudden effusion of amendments, along with unease among House members about getting a complex, significant bill late in the session, slowed the process.

To address this, Smith's office took the unusual step Wednesday of setting up a legislators-only room in a conference room behind the House chamber, complete with maps, the 64-page bill and other educational materials, so lawmakers could go by and learn how it might affect their House district.

At midafternoon, despite a desultory pace of legislating on the House floor, no members had yet visited the room.

If SB 792 does not get final passage in the House until Friday, and is loaded with amendments, it could be difficult to quickly reach accord with the Senate on a final bill. That in turn would force Perry to veto HB 1892, something that Smith and legislators working on the alternative bill have hoped to avoid.

Might they vote to pull HB 1892 back from the governor's desk even before SB 792 is fully cooked?

No, Smith said. "I think the members would revolt if we withdraw 1892 before the governor signs 792."; 445-3698

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