Monday, December 03, 2007

"Government should not ever spend the money raised from taxpayers to lobby the public."

Lawmakers to study TxDOT toll road ads


Janet Elliott, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — A multimillion-dollar ad campaign on toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor will be under scrutiny next year by lawmakers who want to know whether the effort is designed to benefit or coerce the public.

The issue was added to a list of topics that the House State Affairs Committee will study leading up to the 2009 legislative session. Speaker Tom Craddick made the assignments last week.

In making the lengthy "interim charges," Craddick focused on some controversial bills that failed to pass during this year's session. They include outlawing so-called "sanctuary cities" for illegal immigrants and requiring voters to show photo IDs.

The Texas Department of Transportation, which is spending $7 million to $9 million on the Keep Texas Moving advertising efforts, also will have to answer to the Appropriations Committee about its current financial condition.

Agency leaders said in early November that a looming budget deficit — at least $1.8 billion by fiscal year 2012 — would force them to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from future road projects.

Craddick wants House budget writers to review transportation spending over the past five years, as well as examine alternative sources of revenue to sustain future transportation needs.

TxDOT spokesman Randall Dillard welcomed the review, saying it is "an excellent opportunity to fully explore the health of transportation finance in Texas."

State Affairs Vice Chairman Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, had asked Craddick, R-Midland, for the formal review of advertising spending by all state agencies.

"While it may be appropriate, at times, for government agencies to educate citizens through public service announcements, I maintain that government should not ever spend the money raised from taxpayers to lobby the public," Paxton said Thursday.

Transportation officials have said the campaign is a response to demands from lawmakers and the public for more information about why privately financed toll roads are necessary to relieve congestion.

The Elections Committee will examine voting fraud, a key issue in the debate over requiring voters to show photo identification. Democrats say election fraud is not a problem and that requiring photo ID cards would prevent eligible voters from casting ballots.

Republicans argue that the photo cards could prevent non-U.S. citizens from illegally voting.

"We need to ensure that only U.S. citizens who are Texas residents are voting in our Texas elections," said Craddick.

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie said the review is "just another partisan attempt to resurrect the discriminatory and divisive" legislation.

Illegal immigration also is at the center of a study of local enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Plano, said Texas should have a uniform policy for illegal immigrants brought to local jails and probation departments. He plans to hold hearings throughout the state.

"It's reprehensible to think we have custody of illegal immigrants and yet fail to identify them and coordinate with federal authorities," he said.

Also on the panel's hefty agenda are reviews of state jails, substance abuse treatment resources and the relationship between mental illness and criminal behavior.

Acting to address growing criticism of a 1999 electric deregulation bill, the Regulated Industries committee will research the effects of wholesale and retail competition in the Texas electric market.

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