Monday, February 04, 2008

The 'Outreach' Lobby

Is TxDOT illegally lobbying? No, it's 'outreach'

Anti-toll groups say agency flouting state prohibition on agencies paying to influence lawmakers.

February 04, 2008

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Was the Texas Department of Transportation lobbying?

Well, yes. One of its commissioners admitted as much to several hundred close friends last week, and the agency identified four of its hired guns in a recent court filing. In fact, in this All-Out Tollfare era, lobbying may be what TxDOT does best.

But the question is: Did TxDOT break the law by lobbying? The answer, despite toll opponents' certitude, is not so clear.

The hubbub began Jan. 22, when Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton took the mike at a public hearing in Hempstead (about TxDOT's proposed super-tollway, TTC-69, from Brownsville to Texarkana) to answer a question. The moment, inevitably, is now on YouTube.

Yes, Houghton said, "we hire lobbyists up there (in Washington) to represent the interests of the State of Texas."

Aha, Comal County tollway opponent Terri Hall said in a news release titled "Smoking gun," Houghton "admits TxDOT violated the law!" Houghton, of course, confessed to no such thing.

Hall was depending on state law that bars state agencies from spending money to "employ, as a regular full-time or part-time or contract employee, a person who is required by Chapter 305 to register as a lobbyist."

If you read Chapter 305 of the state Government Code, it basically refers to lobbying the Legislature and the executive branch of Texas government. The four lobbyists named by TxDOT in response to a lawsuit filed by Hall's Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom — including former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro — work their magic in Washington, not Austin. None are registered lobbyists in Texas.

Now, TxDOT did pay the Rodman Group at least $65,000 to have Gary Bushell, a registered Texas lobbyist last year, spend much of the first half of 2007 talking to local elected officials along the Interstate 35 and Interstate 69 corridors. This was right when the Legislature was considering banning private toll road contracts of the type TxDOT wants to use to build TTC-69. A bunch of TTC-69 local folks came to Austin about that time, asking that their road be exempt. They got what they and TxDOT wanted.

Was Bushell lobbying for TxDOT? No, he was doing "outreach," spokesman Chris Lippincott and Bushell say, taking notes about the local folks' concerns and answering questions. If he had, Lippincott said, "we would have fired his (behind) on the spot."

Lobbying or not, TxDOT has certainly been an active political player the past few years. The late Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson at times last year seemed to be a 182nd legislator. He and Houghton, usually accompanied by TxDOT's entire senior executive team, were all over the Capitol last spring. TxDOT's efforts to overturn that session's adverse results (from its point of view) have taken a variety of forms since.

Williamson is gone now, and TxDOT faces a battery of legislative committees looking to tame it, starting with two hearings Tuesday. Lobbying charges may soon be the least of TxDOT's problems.

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