Friday, May 04, 2007

Sen Ogden: "Over the years, the Legislature has been somewhat lazy and somewhat asleep. My last election was a wakeup call for me."

Senate wants reins on agency budgets


Peggy Fikac, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Buffeted by a public outcry over toll roads, parks and the Texas Youth Commission, the Senate is seeking to control state agencies better by tying tight strings to their funding.

Whether the House will agree to rein them in as much will be a key area of negotiation as the two chambers try to resolve differences in a budget that will top $150 billion for the next two years.

"Over the years, the Legislature has been somewhat lazy and somewhat asleep," said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, Senate Finance Committee chairman, of the provisions. "My last election was a wakeup call for me."

Ogden — who got nearly 62 percent of the vote in November but had expected to do at least 10 points better — said, "People weren't coming out to vote against me, they just weren't coming out to vote. ... The message I took back is, 'Why don't you guys go do what you think is right and exercise the power you've been given, instead of basically not doing your job?'"

The House spending plan, while imposing requirements on agencies, hasn't gone as far in tightening lawmakers' grip.

"Some of those are kind of OK, because we don't give anybody money without strings attached," said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"We're not the executive branch of government, and we will constantly remind (senators) of that," he added. "These are agencies that the boards and commissions are appointed by the governor. And once they get the money, they're going to spend it under their direction."

Since the Legislature meets in regular session only every other year, both chambers' budget proposals reflect a need for oversight. But the Senate goes further for several agencies, including:

The Texas Department of Transportation, whose work on the Trans-Texas Corridor plan championed by Gov. Rick Perry has sparked protests from Texans who don't like planned toll roads' cost or layouts. An audit said the public might not know how much the state will pay for a toll road paralleling Interstate 35.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, an agency at which candidates for governor last year said they wanted to boost spending in a reflection of public support for parks. An audit released this year cited agency shortcomings including financial control weaknesses and inflated visitor counts.

The Texas Youth Commission, where a scandal has unfolded over treatment of juvenile offenders.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which some Senate leaders want to authorize to build new prisons only with safeguards against overbuilding in case diversion and treatment programs serve their purpose.

The Senate wasn't alone. The House also put in some additional, strong provisions for agencies including the Texas Department of Transportation.

"Clearly the House is in favor of getting some control over TxDOT," Chisum said. "I think we will probably do something on that."

Putting the directives, known as "riders," in the state budget would create a backup to separate legislation that could be vetoed by Perry. The governor can veto entire bills and line-item budget appropriations, but he can't veto budget provisions that qualify an appropriation or direct the method of expenditure.

The riders are "appropriate under the circumstances, because we've had some significant problems and some significant controversies," said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Finance Committee vice chairwoman.

"They're controversial areas where there have been problems. Instead of business as usual and allowing agencies that have faced problems and caused problems to operate on their own, we are instead reining them in and providing more direct supervision," she said.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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