Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mike Krusee gets kicked to the curb

Postcards from the Trail

Committee missing a notable name

September 27, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

House Speaker Tom Craddick today named his three members to a study committee that will look at the volatile issue of private toll roads, and who’s not on it is as interesting as who is.

Absent from the trio: state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, who since 2003 has been chairman of the House Transportation Committee. That would seem to make him more than a bystander on this issue, which roiled the Legislature this spring and is at the core of the evolving transportation funding debate.

Instead, Craddick appointed state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, Krusee’s vice chairman on Transportation the past two sessions; state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Houston, who carried what turned out to be the centerpiece transportation bill of last session; and state Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg, who was not on the transportation committee and up to now has not been a legislative player on the issue.

A schism opened between Krusee and Craddick this session after the speaker routed Smith’s transportation bill to the County Affairs Committee rather than Krusee’s committee. Smith had a particularly close relationship with the County Affair chairman — Wayne Smith — and the bill flew through the committee and thus to the House floor. Where Krusee opposed it. The Senate version of that bill eventually became the vehicle for a number of policy changes that Krusee — and the Texas Department of Transportation — disliked.

But Krusee said today he understands the logic of why Craddick named others, and that his feelings aren’t hurt.

“Not at all,” Krusee said. “For the obectives we’re trying to reach, for the public to perceive the process as far and open, I think these are good appointees… . Many people do not regard me as objective because I’ve been at it for so long.”

The study committee will look at long-term lease contracts between the state and private tollway operators. Gov. Rick Perry, Krusee and Perry’s appointees to the Texas Transportation Commission have pushed for such contracts as a way to get roads built quickly with no up-front cost to taxpayers. But opponents, who ultimately make headway with their legislative colleagues, said the first contract signed in the state (for a segment of Texas 130 near Austin) weighed too much in the concessionaire’s favor.

The Legislature passed SB 792, which put a moratorium on such contracts (with some exceptions) for the next two years, and outlaws them entirely after that.

Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst each will have three appointees to the committee as well. Craddick is the first to name his choices.

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