Saturday, July 19, 2008

TxDOT Director: "People didn't understand toll roads."

Government advertising under scrutiny

TxDOT campaign at center of debate over $100 million in ad spending

July 18, 2008

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — Government spending on advertising is being put under a microscope by state lawmakers who say they want to ensure public funds are used to inform, not unduly influence Texans.

The effort was sparked by concerns over a divisive toll road campaign by the Texas Department of Transportation, which was in a familiar spotlight at Friday's House State Affairs Committee hearing on the issue.

"We get all of the advantages of the toll roads, and yet there are a lot of people that see a lot of disadvantages," said Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, a State Affairs member. "It seems like there was almost an effort to go beyond what the legislative intent was ... We have an agency here that kind of has their agenda that is different from ... legislative intent. I guess that's what our concerns are."

Coby Chase, director of TxDOT's government and public affairs division, responded, "We have most certainly, certainly heard that." He said that the agency is "reassessing everything."

About $4.5 million has been spent on the Keep Texas Moving campaign, but there are no additional big advertising pushes in the works under its banner, according to TxDOT. The campaign originally was proposed at $7 million to $9 million.

Chase called it a response to concerns that people didn't understand toll roads.

The ad campaign had a ripple effect by prompting Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, State Affairs vice chairman, to call for the committee to study advertising practices across state government.

State agencies' public awareness campaigns often give useful information, but "some state agencies may have overstepped their bounds by actually advertising their programs in an effort to lobby the public to support their agenda or utilize a particular service," Paxton said.

The committee gave an initial look Friday at everything from health officials touting the benefits of breast feeding to promotion of state agricultural products to the Texas Lottery Commission's advertising.

It's unclear just how much state agencies spend on promotions, since state records don't precisely track them.

But an examination of state records last year by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News found the tally for advertising, publications and promotional items could easily reach $100 million or more in state and federal funds just for fiscal year 2008.

The tourism section of Perry's office, for example, has a $40 million advertising budget; the Lottery Commission spends $31 million; TxDOT budgeted $18.4 million for advertising, aside from the Keep Texas Moving program; and the Secretary of State's office had an estimated $4 million budget for such efforts.

TxDOT drew much of the attention, a spot to which the agency is accustomed.
  • It just this week faced criticism from the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which looks at whether agencies are in need of major changes or should be continued. Sunset staff has recommended major changes.
  • Its Keep Texas Moving campaign on toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor transportation network struck a particular nerve with lawmakers, who've heard an outcry about the corridor's possible route from landowners and have sought to rein in state partnerships with private companies on toll roads.
Both ideas have been pushed by Gov. Rick Perry as an answer to traffic congestion and tax revenues that are short of meeting road needs.

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