Saturday, May 19, 2007

State Senators and Rick Perry keep chipping away at private toll road 'moratorium.'


With replacement in limbo, Perry vetoes toll bill

Senate rebuffs House changes to SB 792, pushing final action on the tollway overhaul into the session's last week.

May 19, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The Texas Senate declined to accept House changes in a key toll road bill Friday, thus requiring a House and Senate conference committee to craft a compromise version and triggering a gubernatorial veto of another bill.

When the House decided to knock off work for the weekend early Friday afternoon, Senate Bill 792 was put on ice until Monday. That led Gov. Rick Perry to follow through on his pledge to veto the legislation that SB 792 is meant to replace, House Bill 1892. The governor said that legislation "jeopardizes billions of dollars of infrastructure investment and invites a potentially significant reduction in federal transportation funding."

Perry vetoed the bill just before 5 p.m.

"I am grateful that legislators are working with me in subsequent legislation to address these concerns I have expressed," Perry said in his veto message.

That combination of events leaves open for a few more days the exact shape of the Legislature's overhaul of Texas toll road policy.

Lawmakers, responding to intense voter reaction to private toll road leases and Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan, have been sifting and debating options all session.

Legislators thought they had completed the job about two weeks ago when they passed HB 1892 almost unanimously. That bill included a partial freeze of private toll road contracts for two years, new limits on contract provisions for such long-term leases, and measures giving local toll road agencies the first shot at turnpike construction in their areas.

But Perry hinted that he would veto and threatened to call a special session if the Legislature didn't bring him a new bill addressing his concerns. SB 792 was that bill, and sponsors had hoped to get it to him before 11:59 p.m. Friday, the deadline for Perry to veto HB 1892.

They didn't make it.

The House added 18 amendments Thursday to the version passed by the Senate on Monday, and some of those changes were unacceptable to at least some senators. Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, for instance, did not like several amendments by his fellow El Paso Democrat, Rep. Joe Pickett.

And Perry was said to be unhappy with an amendment by state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, meant to address a potential conflict of interest for investment banks participating in private toll road deals.

The Senate named its conference committee members Friday afternoon, but the House left town before approving its list.

Nonetheless, key House and Senate members began to negotiate Friday. Senate Bill 792 sponsor Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said quick action next week is possible.

"This is not a days-long process," Williams said. "This is a few hours."

The Legislature still has the option, should SB 792 run aground, of voting to override Perry's veto of HB 1892. That would require approval of at least two-thirds of the members in both the Senate and House.; 445-3698

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.

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