Saturday, November 03, 2007

""It appears they are trying to lobby the public to be favorable towards [the TTC and toll roads]. I'm not sure that's a good use of taxpayer money."

Agencies' spending on media, ads is examined

Nov. 3, 2007

By PEGGY FIKAC, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — A multimillion-dollar ad campaign on toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor spurred two lawmakers to call for a formal examination of how state agencies spend media and advertising dollars.

"My concern is that Texas agencies, including TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation), have exceeded the proper role of state government and, potentially, their legal authority provided by state law," Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said in a letter last week asking Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to assign a Senate committee to study the matter.

His request followed one by Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, to House Speaker Tom Craddick.

"We (lawmakers) are potentially curtailing (TxDOT's) ability to do tollways and maybe push forward the Trans-Texas Corridor," Paxton said. "It appears that now they are trying to lobby the public to be favorable towards these particular issues, and I'm not sure that's a really good use of taxpayer money."

Dewhurst and Craddick haven't announced what areas they'll direct committees to study before the 2009 legislative session. Interim studies can prompt calls for changes in law.

TxDOT has said the Keep Texas Moving campaign is within its legal authority and represents a response to demands from lawmakers and the public for more information.

Paxton said when he learned of the TxDOT campaign, estimated to cost $7 million to $9 million in highway funds, "I thought, 'Wow, I wonder how many other agencies are doing this, and how much of our taxpayer money is being spent on it?'"

That question can be difficult to answer because state records don't precisely track such efforts, but the tally for advertising, publications and promotional items is easily close to $100 million or more in state and federal funds just for fiscal year 2008. Some agencies with such budgets for this fiscal year include:

The tourism section of Gov. Rick Perry's office, which has a $40 million advertising budget.

The Texas Lottery Commission, which spends $31 million on advertising.

TxDOT, which has budgeted $18.4 million for advertising on programs ranging from traffic safety to promoting TxTags, which give access to toll roads. The total doesn't include Keep Texas Moving.

The secretary of state, whose office has an estimated $4 million budget.

No total for 2008 was available for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which promotes everything from disease prevention to abstinence to the fight against tobacco to disaster preparation. Agency spokesman Doug McBride said such costs aren't centrally budgeted but determined at the program level.

An idea of its spending on such items, however, can be gleaned from the state comptroller's detailed expenditure records, even though they don't specifically track promotional campaigns. Those records show the health agency spent nearly $11.5 million on advertising.

The comptroller's records showed all state agencies together spent $97.8 million in state and federal funds in fiscal year 2006 and $93.3 million in fiscal year 2007 in advertising, promotional items and publications.

Those figures aren't precise reflections of promotional efforts, however. The advertising category, for example, includes such items as job ads and legal notices. Other spending on promotional campaigns may be overlooked if agencies code it — accurately, but broadly — as "professional services" rather than ads.

The request by Patrick and Paxton is the latest show of concern stemming from TxDOT's campaign to promote toll roads, ideas championed by officials including Perry in the face of traffic congestion and tax revenues short of meeting road needs. Activists have sued over the campaign, calling it an improper use of public funds.

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