Saturday, May 19, 2007

"We're not too sure we can save ourselves from the Trans-Texas Corridor."

Toll road bill stalls

Legislature: Lawmakers, Perry hope for deal as session winds down

May 19, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – Can lawmakers forge a compromise to a compromise?

They'll have to if they want Gov. Rick Perry to sign a bill that revamps the state's toll-road policies and places a partial two-year ban on private toll contracts.

A day after the House added 20 amendments to a transportation bill that senators had hailed as a grand compromise, the Senate declined to accept the changes. And as expected, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed an earlier bill that he insisted would jeopardize Texas' entire transportation system.

The developments set the stage for a flurry of bargaining in the session's final week on how the state builds highways, a fight that has been brewing since Mr. Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan became a major issue in last year's political campaigns.

"I am grateful that legislators are working with me in subsequent legislation to address these concerns I have expressed," Mr. Perry said in a prepared statement.

Under any final deal, North Texas stands to escape from a toll road freeze unscathed. But the fight will frame a crucial policy issue: how a booming state that's averse to new taxes can pay for the roads it needs.

Lawmakers had hoped to send Mr. Perry the newer bill by Friday to avoid the confrontation of a veto.

But Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, announced that he could not immediately agree with the House's changes to the new bill.

That means a conference committee will try to hash out the differences.

The House adjourned early for the weekend before naming its committee members, so any resolution to this legislative session's transportation saga will come Monday at the earliest.

Both the Legislature and the governor enter the final full week of the session with potential trump cards in hand.

Enough votes to veto

Lawmakers passed the first transportation bill by staggering margins in both the House and Senate, riding a wave of popular sentiment against private toll roads. In theory, they have enough votes to override Mr. Perry's veto.

But if that happens, the governor has threatened to call a special session to force lawmakers to produce a bill he will sign.

Key senators expressed optimism Friday that the lingering issues can be resolved quickly next week.

"I don't think this is a days-long process," Mr. Williams said. "This is a few hours to get this worked out."

Friday's veto had "no practical effect, because all of us, including the governor, are intent on reaching a solution to this," said Sen. John Carona, the Dallas Republican who chairs the Senate transportation committee.

"None of us want to be here in special session, and all of us want the ability to build roads," Mr. Carona said.

Most North Texas toll projects would be exempted from the two-year moratorium on private toll-road deals.

But critics of other Texas toll projects raised fears Friday that their hard-fought efforts to halt toll roads could evaporate in the conference committee's closed negotiations.

"Have we been sold out? Afraid so!" screamed a headline in a bulletin distributed by CorridorWatch, a grass-roots group that opposes the Trans-Texas Corridor initiative, which includes a toll road that would roughly parallel Interstate 35.

"We're not too sure we can save ourselves from the Trans-Texas Corridor," the bulletin said.

'Facility agreements'

CorridorWatch raised concerns that lawmakers may jettison an amendment that would prohibit the state from using semantic gymnastics to develop toll roads in separate projects called "facility agreements."

Such agreements are essentially subcontracts for larger projects, and critics fear that if they are allowed, the state could use them to get around the moratorium and move forward with the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Other sticking points could include a number of amendments involving El Paso County, as well as a provision that would prevent a company from financing a toll-road project if it also helped determine the project's original value.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, said lawmakers were still sorting through the amendments Friday.

"We're beginning to get some consensus of which ones we need to keep and which ones we need to keep out," Mr. Smith said.

As a last resort, the Legislature can wield the prospect of overriding Mr. Perry's veto to enact its original bill. No governor has had a veto overturned since 1979.

"I'm not spoiling for a veto override fight," Mr. Williams said.

"It's still a possibility. The votes are still there. But if we can get it worked out without doing that, that'll save a lot of needless bloodshed – some of which might be mine."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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