Saturday, August 25, 2007

"You are now paying taxes to be propagandized by a state agency."

Our tax dollars are paying for what?

August 25, 2007

Paul D. Perry
The Waxahachie Daily Light
Copyright 2007

Talk about grist for my mill or even fodder for my cannon: Ready, aim, guess what? Everyone’s favorite “underfunded” state agency, the Texas Department of Transportation, intends to spend $9 million in multimedia advertising promoting toll roads and the unpopular Trans-Texas Corridor. The department is seeking to sway public opinion on a political issue using your tax dollars.

Let me re-emphasize: That’s $9 million of taxpayers’ money to tell you that you need to not only pay a gasoline tax but also pay tolls on taxpayer-funded construction.

In effect, you are now paying taxes to be propagandized by a state agency. Think of that every time you drive south on Interstate 35 while leaving Dallas, and see the picture of the affable Marlboro man with the sneaky smile on that slick billboard promising you the moon and the Trans-Texas Corridor, just before you hit the I-20 interchange. Please don’t have an accident.

Chris Lippincourt, a spokesman for TxDoT, says, “This is a direct response to one of the most frequent criticisms our agency receives, which is that we are not responsive to the public, that we don’t do a good job of communicating what we are doing and why, and we’ve taken those criticisms in stride.”

Chris, out in my pasture the cows have left something that closely resembles your statement. It smells and draws flies just like the legislature draws lobbyists.When we call your agency unresponsive, we aren’t talking about how slick your ad-man is. We are addressing your land-grabbing scheme known as the Trans- Texas Corridor, among other schemes. I like to think of it as your foreign-sponsored pogrom against private property. Use the I-35 right-of-way you already control, competitively and publicly re-bid the project and maybe we won’t call you “unresponsive,” if you find that term so upsetting.

Maybe Michael Quinn Sullivan, formerly with U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s office and now with Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, says it best: “When government resorts to advertising its programs and services, that’s a sure sign government has gotten a little too big.”

Ya think?

On a related note, there is now a Texas district court decision that indicates county associations shouldn’t hire lobbyists.

Americans for Prosperity-Texas director Peggy Venable issued the following statement regarding 277th Judicial District Court Judge Ken Anderson’s opinion of Jan. 8:

“We applaud the ruling which came out today as a victory for taxpayers. The ruling acknowledges that the Texas Association of Counties has been operating outside the law and that counties cannot use general revenue funds to join associations which lobby. We will continue to fight to protect all tax dollars from being used to lobby.

“Though this action is against one association, we are aware this practice is widespread. We will work to see that state law is upheld and we are also committed to eliminating all public dollars from lobbying activities.”

This case is being appealed. The Texas Association of Counties’ dues are typically paid by counties. Our county may well pay dues to this organization. Those payments are funded by your tax dollars. Are we paying dues to an organization whose lobbying efforts have been ruled to be illegal by a district court in the state of Texas? Shouldn’t Ellis County follow the district court ruling in this case and be above reproach in its funding of lobbyists? I think we should at least defer any payment to TAC unless and until this case has seen final resolution through the entire appeals process, including final resolution in the Texas Supreme Court, where it may well end up.

Some, perhaps most, counties in this state are paying dues to this organization. This must stop until a final court rules on the legality of their lobbying efforts. Some might say since it is on appeal, counties may continue to pay dues to TAC. But wouldn’t it be nice to see county leadership be proactive and avoid a potential impropriety? After all, TAC was one of the organizations that helped to sink a legislative agreement on appraisal reform for taxpayers. Maybe advertising by state agencies should fall by the wayside, too.

TxDOT does bring up some legitimate issues in trying to fund transportation in Texas.

In all fairness, gasoline tax money formerly set aside for state road construction and maintenance has been raided by the legislature for purposes it was not intended. This has to stop. The state gasoline tax has not been raised in years, while overall gas mileage has been increasing. The gas tax is assessed at the pump as an incremental part of every gallon of gas you purchase. Road wear is still road wear, no matter what mileage a vehicle gets. In the past several years, the price of road construction materials has also increased. Construction prices tend to be cyclical, and they may be at a peak, however.

We must make sure every dollar that is spent in Austin is spent wisely, before any mention of tax increases or new toll roads enters into public debate. Right now, both TxDOT and many politicians are telling us that more tolls and higher taxes are the way out of this mess. We need stronger budgetary control in Austin, and multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns should never be part of a state agency’s budget — especially if they are trying to shift public opinion on what is a political issue.

Paul D. Perry is a contributing Sunday columnist for the Daily Light. He is a local businessman and mediator.

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