Saturday, February 17, 2007

“We believe this corridor concept should be scrapped and future highway planning be given serious oversight by the legislature.”

Farm Bureau Testifies Against Trans-Texas Corridor Project


Livestock Weekly
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — The Texas Farm Bureau opposes the Trans-Texas Corridor, and the organization is making its views known before the legislature.

Testifying recently before the state Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, Nacogdoches County cow-calf producer and timber owner Albert Thompson told the committee that Texas Farm Bureau county leaders across the state have studied the proposed massive transportation project over the last two years. In addition, he said agricultural producers have attended public meetings held throughout Texas to gain a better understanding of the issue.

“They concluded that Texas Farm Bureau should oppose the Trans-Texas Corridor because the corridor would limit landowner access to private property and it will have a major impact on taking of private property for both the corridor and mitigation requirements,” Thompson said.

Further, he added, “eminent domain would be used to condemn property for private business, and most rural communities will not benefit from its construction and, in fact, will likely be negatively impacted.”

Another reason for the Farm Bureau members’ opposition to the project is the loss of tax base to rural schools and counties. According to the proposed plan, rights-of-way will not be taxed and neither will the structures of any private businesses located on the right-of-way.

The Martinsville producer and member of the Texas Farm Bureau board of directors emphasized that the lack of access due to the division of family farms and ranches is a major reason for the organization’s opposition to the corridor.

“As proposed, the Trans-Texas Corridor provides for rights-of-way through rural Texas of up to 1200 feet. If considered as acreage, it amounts to 146 acres per road mile. Furthermore, the corridor will negatively affect wildlife and hunting in many areas of the state in which hunting has become a major part of farm and ranch income. We believe the impact will be devastating to the agricultural industry and to rural communities,” Thompson testified.

The Farm Bureau leader told the committee that the first option for new road and highway construction should be to use current rights-of-way instead of purchasing additional property. If new land is needed, at a minimum, landowners must have reasonable access to their property in situations where farms and ranches have been divided, he said.

“Imagine the challenge of moving cattle, tractors or combines 20 or 30 miles simply to reach property that may be just across the corridor. I cannot stress to you the loss of production time this would create, and the additional strain on county and state roads by moving this equipment.

“We believe this corridor concept should be scrapped and future highway planning be given serious oversight by the legislature,” Thompson concluded.

© 2007 Livestock Weekly:

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Friday, February 16, 2007

"Toll roads in Texas are fueling quite a debate these days, with many drivers saying they hate them."

State Bill Would Halt New Toll Road Construction

Feb 16, 2007

Jay Gormley
CBS 11 News (Fort Worth)
Copyright 2007

NORTH TEXAS Toll roads in Texas are fueling quite a debate these days, with many drivers saying they hate them. Despite the Texas Department of Transportation's claims that money generated by toll roads are the only way to keep up with the demand for new highways, a bill in the state legislature could put a temporary stop to their construction.

CBS 11 News asked one North Texas driver, "What would you say if you never had to pay a toll again?" The response was – "Great. I would say excellent." Another driver said, "It should be free."

Texas State Representative Garnett Coleman feels the same way. He's asking lawmakers to pass his bill that halts the construction of all new TxDOT toll roads until September of 2009.

"Texans already pay for state highways through the gasoline tax and now they're being asked to pay twice with tolls. So clearly, the public is being nickeled and dimed," Coleman said.

A lot of questions are being asked about that gas tax. TxDOT argues that it hasn't been raised in 14 years. Meanwhile, the population of Texas has exploded and so has the demand for new roads.

TxDOT says the gas tax of 1993 cannot keep up with the demand of 2007.

Toll roads already up, or under construction, would not be affected.

TxDOT admits Coleman's bill will win over the public. But TxDOT official Angela Loston says the bill isn't very realistic. "It's not very feasible and the reason why is because we in the DFW area are facing a huge budget crisis. As unpopular as tolls are, they are necessary."

Coleman supports a hike in the gas tax to pay for new highways, but TxDOT says it would take a massive increase to cover all the road projects scheduled over the next five years.

© 2007 CBS Broadcasting Inc.:

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Court ruling renders some TxTag stickers illegal.

License plate law ensnares some TxTags

Toll-paying 'transponders' that mount on front bumper could fall under court ruling.

February 16, 2007

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

First came the distressing news that many Texas vehicles are operating illegally, with license plates partially obscured within frames that violate the law.

Now comes word that a state agency may be contributing to the delinquency of drivers.

Texas transportation officials are studying the impact of a Wednesday court ruling that apparently renders certain toll road tags illegal.

If a vehicle cannot adequately display the TxTag stickers on the inside of the windshield, then the tag must be mounted on the front license plate. At toll plazas, scanners read the tags and deduct toll payments so drivers don't have to stop.

Several hundred vehicles use the devices, which are attached to the front bumper through the license plate bolt holes and cover most of the word "Texas" on the plate.

However, state law prohibits obscuring any portion of the license plate, including the state name and decorative artwork such the space shuttle and a cowboy on a horse, according to Wednesday's decision by the state's highest criminal appeals court.

"What we'll do is immediately look at the ruling, visit with our general counsel and with our toll technology staff . . . to see what options we have and make sure everyone who has the toll tag is following the law," Gaby Garcia, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said Thursday.

It is unknown how long the review will take, Garcia said. Of the more than 200,000 TxTags issued statewide, 340 are the bumper-mounted variety, Garcia said.

Auto dealerships, which supply many of the offending license plate frames, also are struggling with the implications of the Court of Criminal Appeals' 8-1 ruling, which found that a strict reading of the law prohibits covering any portion of a license plate.

After the current law was adopted in 2003, auto dealerships changed their frames to models that were thinner on top — allowing the word "Texas" to be fully displayed — and thought the vehicles were in compliance, said David Elattrache, general manager for David McDavid Acura in far Northwest Austin.

Those frames now will be removed from cars in the sales lot, he said.

"I'm going to send out an e-mail to all my customers and make them aware of what the decision was and tell them that if they can't do it, or if it's inconvenient for them, we'll be happy to take them off for them," Elattrache said. "It looks like a bunch of us will be sitting with inventories (of frames) we can't use."

A concurring opinion signed by three judges called the law "uncommonly bad" because it allows police to pull over, ticket and possibly arrest the large number of drivers whose license plates are obscured.

Richard Woerndell's truck displays the bumper toll tag because mounting a TxTag below the rearview mirror would block his line of sight and sun shading on the windshield above the mirror would block the tag's signal.

The Austin man hopes police will recognize that the devices were provided by a state agency.

The problem, Woerndell said, is that many officers will be unfamiliar with the devices because most of Texas is without toll roads.

"I can just see myself trying to explain to a constable in Egypt, Texas, that this is something issued by TxDOT," he said.

Moving the bumper tag may not be an option, Woerndell said.

"I called yesterday to find out if can I relocate it, but they said you've got to have it right there" for toll road scanners to register the tag, he said.

Meantime, at least four bills are pending at the Legislature to amend the license law.

Companion bills filed by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, (Senate Bill 369) and Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, (House Bill 348) would make it illegal to obscure more than half of the state name and — more to the point for TxTags — allow toll-road "transponders" to be attached to the plate.

"The license plate has to be clear enough that you can distinctly read the license number and enough of the state name," Callegari said. "That's really all we need to have visible for law enforcement to do its duty."

The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to consider Callegari's bill Tuesday.

A bill by Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, (HB 743) would make it illegal to obscure only the license plate number, not the surrounding artwork.

And one by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, (SB 631) applies only to covered license numbers and state names, not cowboys and space shuttles.

Similar bills were filed last session, to no avail.

But Wednesday's court ruling should provide a sense of urgency this session, Callegari said.; 912-2569

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.

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"Hitler took the autobahn and took all the land. What are we going into? Imperialism?"

Citizens speak out against proposed TTC-69


Tracy Dang, Managing Editor
The Sealy news
Copyright 2007

While the Texas Department of Transportation continues to conduct studies for the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor (TCC), one group is saying there is hope that either the project will be stopped or changed from the current proposal.

Citizens for a Better Waller County representative Martha Estes and Corridor Watch cofounders David and Linda Stall led an anti-TTC public meeting in Wallis last Sunday, explaining what citizens can do to address their concerns.

"Is this a done deal? Absolutely not," said Linda Stall. "We have the opportunity to have laws passed that will affect this project. Our goal is to get legislation passed that would affect the project in its current form."

Although the state is further along with the proposed TTC-35, the proposed TTC-69 is a planned 1,600-mile national highway stretching through eight states connecting Mexico, the United States and Canada. The initial study area is approximately 650 miles long, extending from Texarkana and Shreveport to Mexico.

Citizens in rural communities are concerned the proposed corridor would take their property away from them.

"Eminent domain has to pay you for your land," Linda Stall said. "But you will get what the TxDOT appraiser says it's worth. It's not a question of if. It's a question of how much. If you see a TxDOT appraiser out on your land, get yourself an eminent domain attorney. An eminent domain attorney only gets the percentage of the increase he gets you."

David Stall explained once a TxDOT appraiser has surveyed the land, he would make the property owner an offer. If the property owner chooses to reject the offer, the TxDOT appraiser would reconsider and make the property owner a second offer. If the property owner chooses to reject the second offer, TxDOT can file a lawsuit. Once the return has been filed, the property is turned over to TxDOT.

"Hitler took the autobahn and took all the land," a concerned citizen said. "What are we going into? Imperialism?"

David Stall said President Dwight Eisenhower had proposed a similar concept when he came up with the interstate system for the purpose of transporting defense.

"Congress turned down the system three times," Stall said. "It passed on the third time. But it went from toll to what we would call 'freeways,' and it routed traffic through the cities."

Stall said the corridor would not go through the cities, and only interstates and 60 percent of state highways would intersect it.

"It seems to me that putting up these barriers would be a problem for hurricane evacuations and emergency vehicles," a concerned citizen said.

TxDOT is still working on its Tier 1 environmental study before conducting a series of public hearings scheduled for the spring. TxDOT would have to do a Tier 2 environmental study to narrow the 45-50-mile-wide study area to a four-mile-wide study area before conducting more public hearings.

"They have not revealed specific routes yet, but they do have proposed routes," Linda Stall said. "But the TCC route has moved a couple of times since this began in 2004."

However, citizens questioned how long they had before TxDOT would begin acquiring land.

"TxDOT cannot acquire any land until after it gets the record of decision," Linda Stall said. "But Cintra is not bounded by that, but Cintra can only go through willing sellers."

TxDOT signed a comprehensive development agreement with Cintra-Zachry last March, authorizing $3.5 million in planning efforts for TTC-35. If the project is given federal clearance, construction contracts may be considered in the future. To date, no contracts have been signed to develop or finance TTC-69.

But the Stalls said there is hope in the new legislative session.

Senator John Corona, who was recently named chairman of the transportation and homeland security committee, has filed SB 149, which puts an end to non-compete agreements, an important tool in making toll roads financial feasible.

Also, Rep. Gary Elkins has filed Joint Resolution 59, which puts on the ballot a constitution amendment that if any bill is vetoed by the governor at the end of a session, an automatic special session will be scheduled.

"There is hope to stop it," a concerned citizen said. "We don't have to get an eminent domain lawyer or anything like that if we can stop it."

Corona has scheduled a transportation hearing March 1, and citizens are encouraged to either attend the hearing or write to Corona at P.O. Box 12068 Capitol Station, Austin, TX 78711-2068.

A rally on Congress Avenue in Austin has been scheduled for March 2. Those wanting more information about the rally can visit wallercountycitizens. com/ann_detail.php?ID=11.

You may contact Tracy at or (979) 885-3562.

© 2007 Sealy Publications, Inc:

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"There's a reason why we used to call him Nitro Williamson."

Transportation Funding Friction


Kimberly Reeves
Austin Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Tuesday should have been a gold star day at the House Transportation Committee, one that would finally put the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Transportation Institute in the same room at the same time to duel it out over the long-term scenarios for how to pay for the cost of highways in Texas.

Instead, a couple of lawmakers – first Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, and then Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas – turned Texas Transp-ortation Commission Chair Ric Williamson into a human piñata in their frustration over Texas toll roads. First, Harper-Brown, a longtime Irving City Council member, berated Williamson over a document – which Williamson unwisely called "foolish" – that indicated that Dallas received $4.5 billion less over the last five years for transportation funding than it would have under the past system of parceling out federal funds, often referred to as the "fair share" system.

As state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, and others explained it, federal funding has changed. Once, it was based on where the TTC chair lived and how he could earmark funds for his region. A Dallas chair would be named, and funds would shift to Dallas. A Houston chair would be named, and those funds would shift back to Houston.

Under the new funding formula – which is intended to localize transportation decision-making and decrease the "begging" of regional delegations before the TTC – the focus is not how to spend available money, but how to address the transportation plans of a particular region, Krusee said. According to the numbers, the biggest beneficiary of this approach has been the Austin region.

Later, Krusee gave Carona, the chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation & Homeland Security, a chance to address some comments to Williamson. Carona pressed Williamson for a meeting this week, saying Williamson's office said he was booked through March. Williamson, never one to be backed into a corner, attempted to brush off the request, saying simply that he'd call Carona's office to set up a time for a meeting. It was not a meeting, Williamson said, but simply a call to set up a meeting.

"It is this kind of lack of commitment and artful dodging for something as basic as an appointment to meet with you [that] causes the hostility and the friction that exists right now," said Carona, who has filed some distinctly anti-toll-road legislation this session. "The fact that you would sit there and be so arrogant that you would not even commit to a meeting date when I'm telling you that over the next several days I'll be available at any time that will work for you is very troubling."

To this, Williamson could only say, "Thank you." When pressed again for a commitment for a meeting, he replied, "Frankly, senator, I'm speechless."

The confrontation was the talk around the Capitol. Most long-term observers were nonplussed. "There's a reason why we used to call him Nitro Williamson," said one former colleague-turned-lobbyist.

As to the difference between the projections of need by TxDOT and the Texas Transportation Institute – TxDOT says the state would need a $1.40 gas tax to cover the gap; TTI says it would require a 10 cent gas tax increase plus ongoing increases indexed to highway costs – the numbers are closer than they might appear on first blush.

As both Williamson and TTI's Dennis Christiansen pointed out, the assumptions in the two reports are different. While both start with the same general level of need – an additional $86 billion in new roads by 2030 – TTI assumes that local jurisdictions will pick up a third of that cost, through toll roads, local-option gas tax, or simply general revenue expenditures backed by property taxes. The two reports also tinker with issues such as the fuel efficiency of fleet vehicles and other such numbers.

The bottom line on the TTI report projects that the gas tax on the $56 billion in identified needs – the initial 10 cents plus increases as needed – would be about 90 cents a gallon by 2030. The highest rate in the country right now is 33 cents.

© 2007 Austin Chronicle Corp.:

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"When it started showing up on title searches last August, it was worse than anyone could have imagined."

Toll-road law hurting land value, citizens say

Bill would alter what passed in 2006


By Joey Bunch
Denver Post
Copyright 2007

State Rep. Marsha Looper outlined a bill Thursday that would clear up "unintended consequences" of a toll-road law passed last year.

But the attorney for the 210-mile Prairie Falcon Parkway Express said opponents are just trying to bury the proposal in red tape.

"If the intent is just to do away with this private toll road, that's fine; let's just be honest about that," David Foster told the House Transportation and Energy Committee on Thursday.

Looper's bill is badly written, with undefined terms, conflicts and vague assertions that would only lead to legal gridlock, he told the panel.

"This is a field day for lawyers," he said.

A longtime opponent of the toll road, Looper, R-Calhan, said disclosures about the proposed road on property titles in the 3-mile corridor, as mandated by a new law, are depressing property values. Opponents fought for that requirement last year.

Dozens of residents who own property that could be in the road's path did not get a chance to address the committee Thursday, as time ran out on the hearing. Chairwoman Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West, promised another hearing soon for them to voice their concerns.

"We didn't anticipate that this would be the effect on property values," said Bob Hoban, attorney for a group of toll-road opponents who worked on last year's legislation. "When it started showing up on title searches last August, it was worse than anyone could have imagined."

Bob Coan of Keenesburg dropped his $100,000 asking price for 14 acres by $20,000 in August. He said the price decrease was because of the road.

"That's reality," he said.

The effect has been felt by clients from Nunn to Wellington, as well, said Realtor Lou Kinzli.

"People say, 'Why would I want to buy property right next to a highway?"' he said.

The remedy, however, would put tough requirements on any private toll-road proposals.

Foremost, a toll-road company would have 120 days after its formation to submit a development plan, including financing, to the state Department of Transportation. If the plan is rejected, the project's backers cannot reapply for five years.

Developers also must have a purchase agreement on 85 percent of the land before they could ask the state to condemn any other property.

"There is no investor who is going to take that kind of risk on this kind of project," Foster told the panel.

Staff writer Joey Bunch can be reached at 303-954-1174 or

© 2007 The Denver Post:

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Just about any financial adviser will tell you, selling off assets is the first sign of bankruptcy. "

Talk of toll road lease part of Trenton's shell game


By Leonard T Connors Jr., Christopher J. Connors and Brian E Rumpf
Asbury Park Press (New Jersey)
Copyright 2007

The state's sizable debt, an inability to manage its own finances and widespread discontent among taxpayers have created a circus-like atmosphere in Trenton.

Since it's an election year, the legislative leadership is willing to go to extreme measures to convince the general public that something is being done to fix the financial mess we find ourselves in. The most recent, and perhaps most outlandish example of this, is the recently unveiled proposal to lease the New Jersey Turnpike. Since it really doesn't address the root cause of the state's fiscal problems — runaway spending — our delegation opposes any attempt by the Legislature to lease or sell the Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway.

If you ever have been to the circus, you probably remember the huckster who runs the shell game in which unsuspecting contestants must guess what shell hides a pea. Those who've seen this act know that despite all the fancy hand movements and all the talk by the huckster, the game is nothing more than a sham. There is no pea under the shell, and the contestant never had a chance at winning.

This scenario could be used to describe the situation taxpayers have found themselves in with all the proposals to address the property tax crisis thrown at them over the past several months.

It is estimated that leasing the Turnpike to a private company for 75 years would generate between $10 billion and $15 billion. Proponents state they want the money used to pay off some of the state's debt. People should be deeply concerned this will release enough money for the spenders in Trenton to go on a spending free-for-all. You can bet that, if this happens, the special interests will be circling the Statehouse like vultures.

With the way this state spends, the money generated from leasing a state toll road would be gone before you know it, and we'll be right back where we started — deep in the hole. Only we would have leased one of the most vital transportation arteries in the state to a private company, which for all we know, could turn out to be owned and operated by a foreign country.

It is important to look at the proposal to sell the Turnpike for what it is: an admission by the state that it is incapable of operating the roadway, despite not being required to produce a profit. What do you think will happen to the cost of tolls if the state hands over the Turnpike to a company that reports to a board of directors?

In its present form, the bill that would allow for the leasing of the Turnpike stipulates that tolls could increase only with the rate of inflation. But as we have all witnessed over the past several weeks, bills can be gutted in the legislative process, like the comptroller proposal, to better serve the powers that be at the expense of the taxpayer.

Any company that takes over the Turnpike is going to make turning a profit its first priority. It is also possible that keeping the stockholders happy may adversely affect road maintenance or the completion of needed construction projects if these responsibilities end up hurting the bottom line. Other than toll increases, there aren't going to be many avenues to increase profit margins, which ultimately all businesses must do to survive. So can we realistically expect that tolls will not sharply increase on the Turnpike if it becomes a business entity of a major corporation?

Finally, as just about any financial adviser will tell you, selling off assets is the first sign of bankruptcy. Leasing the Turnpike, which is among the most significant assets in the state's possession, would be an unmistakable act of desperation. Even compared to the budget gimmicks conjured up by the McGreevey administration in past years, this would certainly take the prize. It also would be an addition to the state's consistent track record of fiscal mismanagement highlighted by deficit spending and higher taxation.

The "quick fix" offered under this plan will not provide the long-term structural changes needed to overhaul the state's deteriorating financial condition and, therefore, should be dismissed outright. Significant spending reductions and a more fiscally conservative approach to the use of taxpayer dollars are what is needed to put this state on a sound financial footing.

Leonard T. Connors Jr., is a Republican state senator from the 9th District, which includes parts of Ocean, Atlantic and Burlington counties. Christopher J. Connors and Brian E. Rumpf are Republican Assembly members from that district.

© 2007 Asbury Park Press:

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"Friends don't let friends monetize."

Lawmakers blast turnpike sale idea

February 15, 2007

Gannett State Bureau (New Jersey)
Courier Post Online
Copyright 2007

SECAUCUS Assembly lawmakers took turns today battering a proposal to lease or sell the state's toll roads. Democrats and Republicans on the Assembly Transportation Committee worried a private firm would put profits over maintenance, safety and smooth travel.

"Friends don't let friends monetize," said Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, winning laughs and applause from the roughly 60 person audience at the first public hearing on a proposal to sell or lease the New Jersey Turnpike or Garden State Parkway.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the committee chairman, warned that any "monetization" plan would be similar to past borrowing schemes that have led to the state's crushing debts. Selling or leasing state assets is now being promoted as a way to ease those burdens.

Wisniewski said a long-term privatization plan would still leave the public on the hook for billions of dollars of debt through higher tolls.

Without legislative support, any plan to sell or lease the state's toll roads could be blocked, according to Wisniewski.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, has proposed privatizing toll roads as a way to reduce what he said is now $100 billion in state debt. Cutting debt payments would free up money for schools, higher education and open space, Lesniak said.

"If we do not reduce our debt and meet our obligations, our state will go backward, without any hope of recovery," Lesniak said.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine's administration is examining options for selling state assets, including roads or the state lottery. He has focused on reducing debt to pay for needed programs.

Labor union representatives said private investors might be less likely than a public agency to plow roads during storms like the one that struck Wednesday.

"In its simplest terms, toll roads are meant to be our roads," said Leonard Schiro, an attorney representing the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 196.

Geoffrey Segal, of the Washington-based Reason Foundation, said privatization represents a "new paradigm" in road operations that can provide public bodies with a cash infusion.

© 2007

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Sen. Watson uses smoke and mirrors to sell freeway toll roads again

Watson files bill aimed at accountability on toll roads

Proposal would give more authority to elected, instead of appointed, officials

February 15, 2007

By Mike Ward
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and other such entities across Texas would get greater power in decisions about toll roads — from increased financial review to inclusion of more elected officials in decisions — under a bill filed today by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Senate Bill 668 would "put more openness and transparency" in decisions on toll roads that are mostly made now by regional mobility authorities, which are made up of appointees, said Watson, who is chairman of CAMPO. "Many people's frustration and anger has been that there is not more openness in the process."

Metropolitan planning organizations and regional mobility authorities operate in Austin and other major cities across the state. The latter's toll road decisions have become increasingly controversial in Austin and several cities in recent years.

Other provisions of the proposal would allow local governments to be reimbursed for money they put into road projects that later become toll roads and would require the approval of metropolitan planning organizations on many decisions involving toll roads that the regional authorities now make by themselves.

In addition, the governing boards over local toll projects would have to include at least one elected official, and they would have to file an annual financial report detailing data about planned and existing toll roads.

Watson, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said the measure is intended to open the tolling process to more public view.

"We need to have people accountable to the voters" on the regional authorities, he said. "There's a need for people to feel like the decisions are made in the open. . . . This bill would do that."

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.

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“Freedom-loving Texans planned this protest"

Protesters plan to take NAIS issue to Austin

February 14, 2007

Christina Childs
The Weatherford Democrat
Copyright 2007

Bovine bombardment is part of the most recent plan to thwart Texas legislators’ plan to implement a federally mandated animal identification system.

Protesters plan to tell state government officials, “Don’t Tag Texas,” March 2.

Farmers and ranchers will turnout in numbers at the state capitol that Friday, livestock in tow, to declare their discontent concerning the newly proposed National Animal Identification System (NAIS), as well as the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC).

A media release from the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said the protest is motivated by individual freedoms, which they fear could get trampled along the way.

“Freedom-loving Texans planned this protest because of two issues that threaten their way of life: The National Animal Identification System and the Trans-Texas Corridor,” the release stated.

“The NAIS and the TTC are national issues with their hearts in Texas,” said Judith McGeary, founder to the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. “We hope that the sight of a veritable Noah’s Ark marching up Congress Avenue will reconnect Texas lawmakers to the people whose lives they are affecting and bring the attention of the entire country to bear.”

NAIS legislation was spurred as a result of heightened threats of foreign animal disease outbreak in the U.S.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Web site describes NAIS as, “a modern, streamlined-information system that helps producers and animal health officials respond quickly and effectively to animal disease events in the United States.”

The proposed system, at this point, is a voluntary State-Federal-Industry partnership. However, the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance states there are some concerns when it comes to a possible mandate.

“NAIS is a corporate-agriculture plan being pushed by the federal government,” the release reads. “The Texas Animal Health Commission currently has the authority to make it mandatory at any time.

“If it does, then anyone who owns even one livestock animal — even just a chicken or a horse — will have to register their premises with the government, individually identify each animal and report movements to a database.”

Jon Green, Parker County extension agent-agriculture, said at this point, NAIS legislation is still up in the air, and his sentiments are mixed when it comes to the proposed system.

“Right now, that whole program has been put on hold,” Green said. “We’re kind of in the wait-and-see mode. I think it could have a positive impact just due to the fact that it allows animals to be traced back, and it would help in the case of a disease outbreak.

“But, it does put a little more on the part of livestock producers when it comes to tagging their animals and making sure everything is done before the animal leaves the premises.”

According to Mike Sweatt, county executive director for the Farm Service Agency, approximately 200 to 300 area producers stand to be affected if the new legislation becomes mandatory.

© 2007 The Weatherford Democrat:

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Familiar faces fill NTTA's top two jobs

Toll agency director steps down

NTTA hiring his predecessor to return as interim leader

February 15, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

PLANO – The leader of the North Texas Tollway Authority announced his resignation Wednesday.

Allan Rutter, the agency's executive director since February 2005, will remain on the job through Wednesday.

"It's time for me to leave," he said, adding that he plans to pursue opportunities in the expanding world of public-private partnerships for transportation projects.

Mr. Rutter previously served as a transportation adviser to Gov. George W. Bush and later was appointed director of the Federal Railroad Administration.

"There are a bunch of things I can do, and a bunch of people I am talking to," he said.

His departure came after the authority's board of directors met for two hours behind closed doors, the third such meeting in recent weeks.

"This was Allan's decision," agency board chairman Paul Wageman said. "He made significant accomplishments at this agency. He got things in place for us. Now it's time for us to execute those plans he made."

Some of the discussions in the previous closed-door meetings involved the recent resignation of the tollway authority's deputy executive director, Matt Dominy, Mr. Wageman said.

Shortly after announcing Mr. Rutter's resignation, the agency unveiled some familiar faces to fill its top two jobs.

The board of directors voted unanimously to hire former executive director Jerry Hiebert as its interim director. Mr. Hiebert led the agency from 1998 until Mr. Rutter took over in 2005.

"The chairman called me, and he indicated he was committed to keeping the agency's projects moving forward," said Mr. Hiebert, who probably will serve for six months. "I care a lot about the region, and I want the NTTA to be a success."

The change in leadership comes at a crucial time for the tollway authority. After months of wrangling with the Texas Department of Transportation over the rights to build a host of toll roads in North Texas, the agency recently established a working agreement with the state that outlines which agency will build future toll roads.

"We have more projects today than we have ever had," Mr. Wageman said. "We need someone with dynamic leadership skills to help us continue to get things done."

And in one of his first acts upon returning, Mr. Hiebert announced his selection of former tollway authority executive Rick Herrington to become the agency's new deputy executive director. Mr. Herrington spent more than six years with the tollway authority and rose to the position of assistant executive director before he left to join the private sector.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

$36.6 million embezzlement scheme lasted nearly 12 years before it was detected in early 2005


Auditors: PBS&J overcharged

PBS&J, where three former employees are accused of embezzlement, has overcharged clients, investigators said.

Feb. 14, 2007

Patrick Danner and Dan Christensen
The Miami Herald
Copyright 2007

Engineering firm PBS&J overcharged government clients for several years, auditors investigating embezzlement at the company have found.

PBS&J has attributed some of the millions in overbilling to three former employees who tried to cover up a $36.6 million embezzlement. But in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the firm also admitted to its own overbilling, although it won't say by how much. One big client, the Florida Department of Transportation, estimated that more than half of the approximately $11 million it was overcharged had nothing to do with the embezzlement.

The discovery is part of the fallout from the investigation of a $36.6 million embezzlement scheme that lasted about a dozen years before it was detected in early 2005. The probe was conducted by a team of lawyers and forensic accountants hired by PBS&J, formerly headquartered in Miami but now in Tampa.

PBS&J will say only that refunds for overbilling, whether related to the embezzlement or otherwise, came to $37.1 million through the end of its 2005 fiscal year. The company said it was unaware it was overcharging government clients for years but notified them as soon as it learned of the overbilling.

''If we unknowingly overbilled our clients, we have sought to make restitution for all of our clients from day one,'' the company said in an e-mailed statement.

PBS&J said the three ex-employees -- who are set to be sentenced Friday -- overstated its overhead rates, which it uses to determine billings on contracts with clients. Overhead includes costs like management salaries, office rent and employee insurance and benefits.

However, former accounting manager Maria M. Garcia, who has pleaded guilty for her part in the embezzlement, said she and her co-defendants mostly used other methods to conceal their thefts. For example, checks from the healthcare-benefit account of PBS&J, a self-insured company, were deposited in a bank account in the name of a bogus PBS&J political action committee. The unauthorized checks were whited out in bank statements.

Attorneys for Garcia said in a court filing that PBS&J is using the embezzlement to hide its own overbilling. They object to PBS&J's attempt to force Garcia to pay $20 million in investigation costs, even though the company acknowledged in the recent SEC filing that its poor accounting controls contributed to overstated overhead rates on government contracts.

''Because of the hornet's nest of corporate criminality which exploded when Maria opened Pandora's Box, there is really no way of knowing whether the paybacks and settlement of claims by PBSJ were due to their frauds and corruption of the political process or the defendants,'' Garcia's attorneys wrote.

Separately, Garcia also has accused PBS&J of illegally reimbursing employees for campaign contributions. Authorities are investigating, but PBS&J has said it doesn't expect to be criminally charged.

Mark Schnapp, an attorney representing PBS&J, said in an e-mailed response: "We have not yet seen the document [filed by Garcia's attorneys]. However, we think it is high time that Maria accepts responsibility for her conduct.''

PBS&J was founded in Miami in 1960. The parent company is known as PBSJ Corp., and about 300 of its 3,900 employees are based in South Florida.

The FDOT has settled with the company. The overhead rates PBS&J set for FDOT were overstated for more than 10 years, the settlement agreement reveals. Two PBS&J divisions also charged double for ''general and administrative costs'' for at least five years.

Department auditors estimated about 60 percent, or $6.5 million, of the $11 million the agency was overcharged was not related to the embezzlement. PBS&J in November agreed to refund about $12.5 million, which includes about $1.4 million in interest.

But the refund amount likely will go up. PBS&J last week informed the department of overbillings of $411,458 for the current year. In addition, PBS&J found it needed to make $641,000 in adjustments in the agency's favor on other contracts for which the company has not yet been paid. Those figures are preliminary, however.

The transportation department examined figures provided by PBS&J's forensic accountants rather than looking at the company's books itself. Joseph K. Maleszewski, audit director for the inspector general's office at FDOT, said the $12.5 million settlement it negotiated with PBS&J was ''our best estimate of the damage done to the department.'' PBS&J had originally proposed paying about $7.9 million, according to the inspector general's office.

Two other government clients have settled with PBS&J.

The Justice Department accepted nearly $6.5 million on behalf of more than a dozen federal agencies that were ''submitted false and fraudulent claims'' by PBS&J, a Jan. 24 news release stated. A Justice Department spokesman wouldn't comment. The settlement indicates PBS&J failed to exclude unallowable costs from at least 1999.

In settling with the Florida Transportation Department, PBS&J's president vowed in a letter to implement ''a more robust ethics and compliance program.'' President Todd J. Kenner also promised PBS&J would have an independent auditor certify its overhead audit for 2007 and 2008.

© 2007 The Miami Herald:

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"Critics say allowing foreign entities to operate U.S. highways unfairly siphons profits out of the country, and could pose security risks."

Highway retailers see road to future

February 14, 2007

By Sean Lengell
The Washington Times
Copyright 2007

Public highways across the U.S. will be auctioned to the highest bidder, if a growing trend of privatizing state roads gains traction.

Supporters of such deals told a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee yesterday that states can earn millions of dollars without having to raise gasoline taxes by leasing toll roads to private entities.

"There is a series of interest [from states] across the country," Tyler Duvall, Transportation Department assistant secretary for transportation policy, said during a hearing of the House highways and transit subcommittee.

But opponents worry such deals are reckless and shortsighted, and might end up costing states, and taxpayers, more in the long run.

"I am not convinced that 50 states, each pursuing their separate transportation priorities with their respective private-sector partners, will, in the end, produce a coherent, integrated, national [highway] system," said Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Virginia in 1988 became the first state to enact legislation enabling private development of highways. Seven years later, the 14-mile Dulles Greenway opened -- one of the first private toll roads built in the U.S. in more than a century.

Other states and local governments followed suit.

The city of Chicago in 2004 agreed to lease the Chicago Skyway toll road to a joint Spanish-Australia venture for $1.8 billion for 99 years. The same group last year leased the Indiana East-West Toll Road for $3.85 billion for 75 years.

But Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi is no fan of privatizing roads.
"The private sector's legal responsibility to its shareholders is to make money -- profit is their purpose," Mr. Busalacchi testified.

Democrats say the Bush administration is pushing public-private highway deals as a way to avoid increasing the 18.5 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax.

Mr. Oberstar said it is disingenuous to promote privatization of toll roads as a way of keeping taxes down.

"I spell toll t-a-x," he said. "Don't sugarcoat it or say it's something else."

There is no federal legislation regarding highway privatization, but with the current federal highway spending law, known as the SAFETEA-LU Act, set to expire in 2009, members of Congress have been studying alternative funding sources.

Critics also say allowing foreign entities to operate U.S. highways unfairly siphons profits out of the country, and could pose security risks.

"People don't like the idea of their roads being owned by foreigners," Mr. Busalacchi said.
But privatizing roads, if done properly, shifts risks and liabilities, such as cost overruns, to the private sector, said Virginia State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, a Centreville Republican and a longtime proponent of highway privatization.

"I think that getting the private sector in here building facilities available to all of us is just spectacular policy," Mr. Cuccinelli said. "Government doesn't compete -- private sector does."

© 2007 The Washington Times:

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TxDOT again attempts to put lipstick on a pig

TxDOT open house will educate travelers

February 14, 2007

Austin Business Journal
Copyright 2007

Confused by what the term "managed lanes" means? The Texas Department of Transportation is ready to explain.

TxDOT is holding an open-house meeting Tuesday Feb. 20, at the Thompson Conference Center at the University of Texas.

The meeting will be held from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

TxDOT will have presentations to teach attendees about managed lanes, and printed resources will be available. TxDOT personnel will be on hand to answer questions as will members from the Texas Transportation Institute.

"Managed lanes have been effective at offering travel choices on several urban highways around the country," says Ginger Goodin, research engineer at TTI. "Managed lanes hold promise for providing congestion relief on several Texas highways, including MoPac and I-35, but most Texans are unfamiliar with them because they are a relatively new concept."

Information on managed lanes in other cities, such as San Diego, Denver and Houston, will also be available at the open house.

© 2007 American City Business Journals:

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The revolving door between North Texas Tollway Authority and HTNB continues

Tollway Authority exec director Allan Rutter resigns

Board names vet Jerry Hiebert as interim replacement

hntb revolving door

February 14, 2007

By Pegasus News wire
Copyright 2007

PLANO — Allan Rutter announced his resigation as Executive Director of the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), effective February 21.

In response to Rutter's announcement, the NTTA Board of Directors named Jerry Hiebert as acting executive director until a permanent replacement is found. Hiebert previously served as executive director from August 1998 through January 2005.

One of Hiebert’s first actions was to appoint fellow authority veteran Rick Herrington to the deputy executive director position, vacated when Matt Dominy resigned February 9. (Dominy is currently interviewing for an executive director position with the Southwest Florida Expressway Authority).

Hiebert and Herrington are employed by HNTB Corporation, a major consultant to the NTTA. They will resign from HNTB to serve in these interim positions.

During his tenure, Rutter oversaw the ground-breaking on Phase III of the Dallas North Tollway (from SH 121 to US 380) and on the Lewisville Lake Toll Bridge; opened the Superconnector on the President George Bush Turnpike ahead of schedule; ushered in the right-of-way acquisition on the eastern extension of the President George Bush Turnpike to IH 30; and began the initial phase of work on the Southwest Parkway.

Rutter, who topped the authority for two years, will apply his national experience in transportation policy and practice in the rapidly expanding public and private toll road industry.

Posted by T.G.

© 2007 Pegasus News wire:

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NTTA Executive Director exits to the private sector

Tollway director resigns; Southwest Parkway project still on course

Feb. 14, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

A leadership change is in the works at the Plano-based North Texas Tollway Authority, but officials don’t expect the matter to disrupt plans for the Southwest Parkway toll road in Fort Worth.

NTTA Executive Director Allan Rutter resigned Wednesday morning after NTTA board members held a closed-door session. He had been at the helm about two years.

Rutter will be temporarily replaced by Jerry Hiebert, who was NTTA director from 1998-2005 and spent the last two years with the consulting firm HNTB Corp.

Southwest Parkway is scheduled to be under construction by early next year from Interstate 30 to Altamesa Boulevard, and possibly open by 2010.

Rutter caused a Fort Worth firestorm in 2005 when he announced that the parkway would cost up to $820 million, up from $350 million. But officials later determined that the project was still feasible as a toll road, and that it could soon be extended as far south as Cleburne many years ahead of schedule.

Rutter is a former Federal Railroad Administrator and was then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s transportation adviser during the 1990s. He intends to “apply his experience in transportation policy and practice in the rapidly expanding public and private toll road industry,” according to an NTTA release.

“Allan has overseen the Authority during a critical time in our history,” said NTTA Chairman Paul Wageman. “The NTTA continues to build broad regional support, and has a leadership team focused on achieving its strategic objectives, as well as the financial strength to put its assets to work in enhancing mobility for North Texans.”

Hiebert said he will hire fellow HNTB alum Rick Herrington as his acting deputy director.

“I’m proud to have helped the NTTA Board adopt a five-year strategic plan to guide the Authority into the future,” Rutter said. “The Authority is strongly positioned to partner with the Texas Department of Transportation to bring turnpike projects to the region ... We are working diligently with TxDot and the North Central Texas Council of Governments to increase mobility and support economic growth through innovative transportation solutions long into the future."

Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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Governor Perry goes viral: Texas needs a vaccination

Off the Top of His Head

Is the governor auditioning for a new part?


Fort Worth Weekly
Copyright 2007

Who was that guy standing on the dais in the Texas House of Representatives on Feb. 6, addressing a joint session of the Texas Legislature? The one with the Big Hair, delivering what was billed as the governor’s biennial “State of the State” speech?

Many in the audience, including dozens of legislators of both major political parties, couldn’t help wondering whether someone had replaced Republican Gov. Rick Perry with a body double, complete with the correct helmet of well-coiffed hair, but with somebody else’s audiotape playing.

Money for cancer research? More money for education? A mandatory vaccination for sixth-grade girls for a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer?

Austin American-Statesman columnist W. Gardner Selby a couple of days later wondered in print if Perry or a look-alike might have been channeling Chris Bell, the Democratic runner-up to Perry in November. Bell, after all, had pledged to work for the mandatory vaccination for human papilloma virus, or HPV, last September.

If others were confused, the heavy-set guy in the southwest corner of the House chamber wasn’t. Dave Carney may have been clapping the loudest. He’s the chief political consultant to Gov. GoodHair (as the late, great columnist Molly Ivins usually referred to Perry) and the guy suspected of putting dreams of the vice presidency in Perry’s head.

That’s the job that several legislators thought Perry seemed to be auditioning for last week.

Some Democrats said parts of Perry’s speech, like paying health insurance costs for two million uninsured Texans who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and spending $80 million to expand the state’s pre-kindergarten program, sounded more like they were written for a Democrat than a Republican. Perhaps the governor was trying to appear a bit more moderate — though not too moderate.

For instance, he also bragged in the speech, indirectly, about helping cut the legs out from under plaintiffs’ attorneys who sue insurance companies, doctors, and businesses on behalf of injured consumers, by saying he’d helped make the climate better for doctors and other healthcare providers.

On the other side of the aisle, some Republican legislators were still reeling from Perry’s surprise executive order Feb. 2, four days before his speech, to require the HPV vaccinations. Although Perry repeated his support for the vaccinations in his speech, noting that parents of girls can choose to keep their daughters from being inoculated, it didn’t allay criticism from many in his own party. Republicans are steamed that Perry didn’t include them in discussions before taking the action unilaterally, especially since bills have been introduced in both houses of the legislature to do the same thing.

Several attorneys have questioned the constitutionality of his actions. And folks all over the political waterfront have pointed out that the HPV vaccine is manufactured by pharmaceutical giant Merck — whose lobbyists in Texas include Perry’s friend and former chief of staff Mike Toomey. Merck’s political action committee has donated $6,000 to Perry’s political treasury.

The Democrats whose jaws were already unhinged dropped their molars even farther when Perry said he wanted to spend more state money on health insurance, to leverage three federal dollars for each two state dollars spent. Same with his strong call to spend earmarked state tax and fee money for the purpose for which it was collected — like the sporting goods tax for state parks.

Was this the same governor whose insistence on tax cuts in 2003, when the state was already facing a budget shortfall, forced legislators to shift money from pocket to pocket, in order to make the money cover as many bases as possible? Was he now blaming them for bookkeeping sleight of hand?

And it’s Texas Democrats, not Republicans, in general, who have long advocated spending more state dollars on health insurance to bring more federal dollars to Texas and who have resisted the practice of spending money collected for one purpose for other things.

Then there was Perry’s call for more money for public and higher education. Most Democrats and some Republicans think the governor’s tightfistedness in 2003 was what put schools in a hole in the first place. It’s now as if the blocks he caused to be taken down four years ago, in areas like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), parks, higher education, and other areas, he’s now calling to have put back.

How would he fund all these programs? In part, by yet another proposal — bold or hare-brained, depending on your point of view — to sell the state’s lottery to a private company for $14 billion to $20 billion and invest the money. Problem is, other state leaders, including House Speaker Tom Craddick, question whether that route would produce even as much money for the state treasury each year as the lottery itself does now.

In short, the governor in the past week has managed to start new brushfires that are turning up the heat he’s been taking for months now over everything from schools to the massive toll roads he has pushed to the coal-fired plants that he supports, even though business leaders, a mayors’ coalition, and environmentalists from around the planet have been cautioning that the plants could seriously affect global warming and air pollution.

Perry seems undaunted by all the opposition. Maybe it’s because, in addition to having visions of Air Force 2 dancing in his head, he wants, belatedly, to leave behind some legacy other than a tax cut four years ago that wounded many key state services. After all, if he finishes out what will probably be his last term, he will have been one of the longest-serving governors in Texas history.

If he plans on leaving before the end of the term for higher office, however, all the new ideas he’s been popping out might hurt rather than help him. A majority of the Texas Senate — including members from both parties — has gone on record opposing his vaccination fiat. One state senator from his own party is asking that he be investigated for overstepping his powers. Some legislators are working this session to back the state off from both the coal plant fast-track and the Trans-Texas Corridor. And, as one leading toll road opponent — a Republican — said recently, people concerned about that issue alone have been working since November “to make sure he is useless to the national party.”

Legislators were trying to track the new math of Perry’s proposals — sell the lottery, invest the proceeds, spend them on various proposals here, create a new fund there — and, by the way, cut property taxes again by another $2.5 billion. A lot of them didn’t like where it appeared to lead.

“Down here I’ve learned to follow the money,” said State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, an El Paso Democrat. “If the priority is health, education, jobs, and children, then why is a tax cut in 2010-2011 the top priority? We can’t cover one million children with CHIP if state leaders want to give almost $3 billion in tax cuts to Texans who make over $100,000. What matters more — tax cuts for the wealthy or CHIP for children?”

What it adds up to, some suggested, is a roller-coaster that has kept the state’s budget in continuous upheaval for the last four years.

Take another Perry proposal from his speech, this one for $40 million for a Texas Technology Grant Program. It was Perry, after all, who decreed in 2003 that the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, fed by telephone surcharges passed on to customers, was no longer needed. That program was designed to help schools, libraries, and hospitals across the state with technology development.

In 2003, Perry did support keeping some of that money for technology for students. But legislators, in trying to balance the budget, redirected the fund’s $200 million-plus in annual income to other purposes — and have continued that habit since then.

Equally befuddling to some was the governor’s proposal that Texas follow two other states in investigating the sale of their lotteries. He proposed using the presumed $14 billion selling price — and later said the price might reach $20 billion — to set up permanent funds to provide help with health insurance for the uninsured, to provide a cancer research trust, and to increase the permanent endowment fund for public schools.

Perry predicted such funds would produce annual investment earnings of $750 million for education, $270 million for cancer research, and $243 million to help with insurance policies for the working poor.

But several legislators, including Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the senate’s presiding officer, said that proposal in fact wouldn’t provide as much as the $1 billion-plus that the lottery brings in every year for public education.

“We’ll look at it, but the people voted to have the lottery used on public education,” Dewhurst told reporters.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat added that the state’s track record with privatization has been spotty, especially the bad results from farming out to privately run call centers the process of signing up Texans for social services programs.

“Many questions concerning another privatization remain to be answered,” the Austin Democrat said.

Some see Perry’s call to sell the lottery as a way for him to find easy funding now, without new taxes, for programs for which he can take credit — even though Texas would forgo profits from the lottery for the next 40 years.

That sounds similar to another program the governor’s been pushing that has property owners and others in an uproar all across the middle of Texas — the area where the massive Trans-Texas Corridor is planned.

Perry just waved at toll roads in his state-of-the-state speech. “Our state is building roads faster than any state in the nation,” was all he said, without mentioning how they are being financed or that they have tens of thousands of Texas thoroughly hacked. A whole list of grassroots groups opposed to the Trans-Texas Corridor have sprung up, opposing the taking of nearly a million acres of land for toll roads that would, in effect, be leased long-term to a foreign corporation that would build the roads and then get to keep all profits from them for decades. The project also includes charging tolls to drive on highways that are now free — and could prevent any projects to improve many other state roads in the same area as the TTC.

Some other state officials are working to slow down the relentless push by Rick and Ric, the Toll Road Warriors. The second Ric — no K for him — is Ric Williamson of Weatherford, the governor’s buddy from their days as freshmen House members from adjoining districts in 1985. Williamson currently chairs the Texas Department of Transportation Commission, considered the driving force behind the toll road effort, and has managed to anger enough legislators with what they say is his arrogance that they wish he was gone. Sen. John Carona, a Dallas Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Home Security, recently called for Perry not to reappoint Williamson.

Critics of the TTC and other Perry initiatives say their math shows that, were it not for Perry’s anti-tax stance, Texas could have funded its highway needs — and other responsibilities — without resorting to extraordinary tactics like making free highways into toll roads and leasing new highways to foreign corporations. Those folks say the no-tax hype, pushed by people like Grover Norquist, the Jack Abramoff buddy whose group solicits pledges from politicians to vote against all tax increases, has crimped the state’s ability to raise funds to meet its needs.

One such area is the state gasoline tax, which hasn’t been raised for 16 years. In 2001, a nickel increase on the tax was proposed by Rep. Clyde Alexander, an Athens Democrat, who has since retired, and Republican Rep. Kip Averitt of Waco, who is now a state senator.

A nickel increase that year, they said, would have brought revenue in inflation-adjusted dollars up to not quite what the current 20 cents per gallon produced in 1991, the last time the gas tax was increased. The nickel hike in 2001 would have produced an additional $650 million a year: $487.5 million for transportation, and 60 percent of that for highways. Schools would have gotten $162.5 million.

But in 2001, the governor threatened to veto any new tax, which killed the idea from the start. So the state got toll roads instead. Since then, the Trans-Texas Corridor has brought together some unlikely and vehement allies, from conservative ranchers to those on either end of the political spectrum who oppose the hugely expanded use of eminent domain in recent years — a coalition, in fact, not unlike that opposed to Perry’s HPV initiative.

After six years in office, Perry is used to making Democrats mad. But when he surprised state lawmakers with his executive order that 11- and 12-year-old schoolgirls be inoculated against a disease transmitted solely by sexual conduct, the firestorm of criticism from his own party — and support from some outside his party — may have surprised even him.

State Sen. Jane Nelson of Lewisville, the Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said she was “absolutely stunned.” She and Republican State Rep. Jim Keffer of Eastland have asked Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on whether Perry has the power to issue such an executive order.

“The public has a right to testify on this issue, and the legislature has a constitutional duty to be involved in this decision,” Nelson said. Other critics said the vaccine has not been tested enough and that it could make the state look like it’s endorsing young girls having sex.

Perry ordered that Gardasil, a vaccine produced by Merck, be administered to the young girls to help cut down on the incidence of cervical cancer associated with HPV. He reiterated his support for the order in his speech four days later, with his wife Anita, a nurse, beside him at the podium.

Democrats and some Republicans, including Cathie Adams, president of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum, are suspicious that Perry issued the order as much to benefit Toomey and Merck as for public health reasons. The huge pharmaceutical company, trying to recover from losses associated with Vioxx, reportedly has called on its lobbyists around the country to try to get the drug mandated in every state.

“I understand the concern some of my great and dear friends have about requiring this vaccine, which is why parents can opt out if they so choose,” Perry said in his speech. “But I refuse to look a young woman in the eye 10 years from now who suffers from this form of cancer and tell her we could have stopped it, but we didn’t. ... Others may focus on the cause of this cancer. I will stay focused on the cure.”

His words didn’t stop 26 of the 31 members of the Senate, including some supporters of the vaccinations, from signing a letter to Perry calling on him to rescind his action. And 31 House members, mostly Republicans, echoed that action.

Bills have been introduced by Republicans in both the House and Senate to overturn the order. And bills had been introduced before Perry’s executive order by two Democrats, Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, calling for the same action Perry ordered — though only after legislative debate on the topic.

Both women applauded Perry’s action as “a bold step toward eradicating cervical cancer and saving lives.” State Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat and a nurse, also endorsed the move.

Van de Putte pointed out that those who have sex outside marriage aren’t the only women who would be helped by the vaccine. Married women could still get HPV from their husbands. “It’s not about having sex or not having sex,” she said. “It prevents cancer.”

In fact, about the only praise Perry got from legislators came from Democrats, some but not all healthcare groups — and the Democrat who challenged Perry last fall and lost, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston.

“While I continue to be very disappointed in the overall direction he is taking our state, in this particular instance Rick Perry has done the right thing,” Bell said in a statement. “This is about protecting women’s health, not about politics.” He pointed out that the FDA has approved the vaccine and predicts it could have prevented about 70 percent of cervical cancers that killed almost 400 women in Texas last year. “This is why the Center for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society recommend that all young women age 11-12 get vaccinated, and it’s why I called for this same action during the campaign,” he said.

Much of the argument turns not on the question of whether the vaccine is beneficial, but whether, particularly with the legislature in session, the issue should have gone through the legislative process, including public hearings.

Two veteran attorneys — Buck Wood, who represented 250 poor school districts in the suit seeking more state money for schools, and Scott McCown, a former state district judge who now heads the Center for Public Policy Priorities — said Perry’s move defies the Texas Constitution.

“The governor has exceeded his authority for two different reasons,” McCown said. “One, the governor is asserting that if there is authority anywhere in the executive branch, he can order those executives to do anything he wants. For example, he could order the Texas A&M board of regents to make everyone join the corps, or to disband the corps. That’s what he’s arguing.”

However, he said, the current Texas Constitution specifically parcels out authority on various matters to other offices, “so the governor couldn’t tell those executives what to do.”

Second, McCown said, “he can’t order something to be done that violates the law. We have a process for making rules. It’s just as wrong for the governor to say ‘I’m not following the rule-making process; I’m just making a rule,’ as it would be for a judge to say, ‘I’m not holding a trial; I’m just finding you guilty.’ Because we have a whole process for making rules that includes public testimony, legislative input, and so on, and he’s just skipping all that.”

Rules, the former judge said, are intended to implement existing law, not expand it. That’s one reason, he said, that “the legislature requires a state agency to go through a careful process of evaluating its legal authority before adopting a rule.”

Republican Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy has said he would withhold support for Perry’s re-appointment of Albert Hawkins as commissioner of health and human services until Hawkins explains how he would deal with the governor’s inoculation order.

Hegar also is concerned that the vaccine should not be used on pregnant women. “Does that mean the commissioner intends to require a pregnancy test for each of these young children before they receive the Gardasil HPV vaccine, or does he intend to put these children at undue risk instead?” he asked in a statement.

The battle over the HPV vaccine may be just beginning. But the fight against another Perry fiat has reached the courthouse as well as the legislature, and it’s being watched closely by folks all over the world.

Groups across the state are massing against the new coal-fired power plants that Perry has put on the fast track for approval. As with HPV, Perry last April issued an executive order that cut down on the time for public debate on the proposed plants — 19 in all. Critics in Texas and across the country believe that the plants will add dangerously to the state’s production of carbon dioxide, a key component in global warming. Texas already produces more carbon dioxide than any other state and most countries. TXU and other utilities have said the air-pollution effect of the plants will be neutral.

Perry said in his recent speech that “power outages are just a few years away” if Texas doesn’t act to build more power plants — and that the new plants will reduce emissions. Environmentalists disagree vehemently.

Whether for that reason or others, a bipartisan Clean Air Caucus has sprung up this year in the Legislature, with 39 of 150 House members, Republicans and Democrats, signed up thus far. Its purpose is to protect public health and the business climate, meet federal clean-air standards, encourage renewable resources, and closely analyze the permitting process for large emission generators — presumably, including the coal plants being pushed by TXU and other utilities. State Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth has filed a bill to create a task force to study global warming in Texas.

Burnam is also one of a bipartisan group of co-sponsors of House Concurrent Resolution 34, authored by Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson of Waco, that urges the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to place a 180-day moratorium on the coal-fired plants.

Proposals like the coal-plant push and the HPV vaccine order have helped create Republican-Democrat coalitions that the governor probably wasn’t talking about when he made a plea for bipartisanship toward the end of his state-of-the-state speech. He asked that listeners put aside past disputes to “choose the high road of unity rather than the easy course of cynicism.”

That’s a tall order for the considerable number of Democrats who remember that in 2003, in addition to the stingy spending that threw hundreds of thousands of kids off CHIP and shorted the schools, it was Perry who called three special sessions on congressional redistricting, designed to punish well-seasoned Democratic members of Congress. They remember that it has been Perry, with lots of campaign contributions from multimillionaire school voucher supporter James Leininger of San Antonio, who has been advocating that state school money be spent on private school vouchers, despite the fact that most of the Democratic legislators and a sizable number of Republicans oppose vouchers for fear they’ll drain resources and good students from public schools. And it’s even tougher when many of them suspect that many of the current gargantuan controversies they and the rest of Texas are wrestling with — HPV, the toll roads, the coal plants, school funding, and the rest — are at least partly window dressing for a vice-presidential bid.

Despite the flurry of speculation, Perry spokesman Robert Black said the governor has no eyes on the VP prize. “He’s not interested,” Black said. “I don’t know how he can say that any better. He’s said he doesn’t like Washington. There’s a lot more talk about that outside the governor’s office than inside it.” As for all the governor’s recent initiatives, Black said they’re not unusual. “This state-of-the-state wasn’t any more or less ambitious than previous ones — just maybe different.”

In January 2006, Perry was asked, and declined to say, whether he would serve his full four-year term if re-elected. The following month, he made a trip to Washington, D.C., ostensibly to seek more federal aid to Texas, but also to see and be seen by national power brokers.

As if he didn’t have enough on his plate in Texas, Perry lately has started sounding interested in political problems around the globe. After all, one feather often needed for a national-ticket headdress is some familiarity with foreign affairs. In his inaugural speech in January, Perry mentioned Israel, Iraq, the Middle East, the Sudan, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America — and, of course, Mexico. Then in the speech this month, the governor decided to join others in “protesting the ethnic genocide occurring in Darfur by calling on the state of Texas to divest of companies doing business in Sudan.”

Don’t be too surprised if Perry visits some or all of those places over the next several months. Just sightseeing, of course.

Even with Perry kissing issues like vaccines and tax cuts and power plants like so many babies held out to him on the campaign trail, ponder his chances in 2008:

He was re-elected in November with just 39 percent of the vote, in a state the Republicans think they’ll carry anyway, at a time when Americans seem to have had their fill of politicians from Texas.

And if Republicans thought they did need a Texan on the presidential ticket, might not U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, with 13 years experience in national issues, stand a better chance for a post-primary selection as a VP candidate?

Somewhere around June of 2008, if he’s still holding down the job, Perry will break the record for most consecutive years as Texas governor, which now stands at eight years. (Four of his predecessors have served six years — though the total service of the fourth, one George W. Bush, was short a month of that because he resigned in December 2000 to accept the presidency, leaving the governor’s mansion open for Perry.) In late December 2008, he’d set a new record for total years served.

Perry could get to follow Bush’s path to Washington. Or he may get to break those records and serve a full 10 years in the governor’s office — whether he wants to or not.

Dave McNeely covered Texas politics for the Austin American-Statesman for 26 years. He continues to write a weekly newspaper column and is co-writing a book on the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock with former Dallas Times-Herald writer Jim Henderson. You can contact him at

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