Friday, June 08, 2007

'I was sure [the TTC] would never sign away their responsibility for developing Texas highways. Imagine my surprise when I learned they had.'

Nichols notes Perry hasn't inked road bill

June 07, 2007

By Jim Goodson
The Jacksonville Progress
Copyright 2007

Texans are much safer now that the Legislature is over, Robert Nichols joked Wednesday at the Jacksonville Rotary Club.

State Senator Nichols, who represents Cherokee County and 15 other counties, said despite the seriousness of addressing major state issues there were some light moments in the just-completed legislative session.

For example, Nichols said when he first began to explore the possibility of running for office he was advised by consultants to shave his beard. “They said no one with a beard could be elected,” Nichols said.

“So after I was elected and during one of the first days of the legislative session, they introduced all of us freshmen to the research staff. One of the researchers heard me ask a fellow freshman how long it had been since someone with a beard was elected.

“A few days later one of the pages brought me a packet. ‘Here’s the research project you requested,’ the page said. I didn’t know what it was. Well, the research staff studied photos of every senator ever elected and determined I was the second senator with a beard in 100 years.

“Basically, since the end of the Civil War, no one with a beard has been elected.”

Nichols said he felt good about the Texas Legislature for increasing the budget for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to $180 million. He singled out Dr. Michael Banks of Jacksonville for organizing and galvanizing support for increasing the parks and wildlife department’s budget.

He also supported the legislature’s decision to do away with the TAKS test in favor of course exam comparison testing.

Nichols also had praise for new legislation that empowers and increases the Child Protective Services department budget. “I probably get more calls about CPS than any other subject,” Nichols said.

More funding for the Texas Forest Service will help that state agency be of greater assistance to volunteer firefighters, Nichols said.

The castle doctrine bill, which releases property owners from liability if they shoot someone entering their home illegally, also drew praise from Nichols, who also had a hand in developing a property owner’s bill of rights that outlines the legal steps available to people facing eminent domain threats.

“Eminent domain should be used rarely and only for a genuine public necessity,” Nichols said. “Too many governmental agencies are abusing eminent domain laws at this time.”

Nichols’ major piece of legislation was to convince legislators to pass a bill that would place a two year moratorium on the construction of privately owned toll roads.

His bill, which has enough co-signers in both the Senate and the House to override a governor’s veto, has yet to be signed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Nichols is a former Texas Transportation Department commissioner who wielded a lot of authority - more than the usual amount for a freshman Senator - especially on transportation issues.

He stressed his adamant opposition to the state’s current plan to allow private roadbuilders to operate toll roads, complete with non-compete laws signed by the state and that do not adequately protect the state should the private firms want to sell the roads back to Texas.

Nichols said Texas has already agreed to a privately-operated toll road to connect Austin and San Antonio, another to connect DFW Airport and McKinney and about 14 others throughout the state. In each case the state signed a non-compete contract pledging not to built highways near these for 50 years.

‘In some cases more than 50 years,” Nichols said. “ I used to fight this fight from within the Transportation Department. Now I’m fighting it as a state senator.

“It is a terrible policy for a government agency to limit its capabilities in this way. 50 years is a long time.”

Nichols said he spoke personally with each each transportation department commissioner, and he was sure they would never sign away their responsibility for developing Texas highways.

“You can imagine my surprise when I learned they had,” Nichols said. “I went straight over to the transportation department building and looked up all the commissioners I could find.

“They told me they had no choice. ‘This was the only deal we could make (with these privately owned firms).’ That’s what they said.

“I couldn’t believe it. That’s why I sponsored this bill.”

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