Monday, August 18, 2008

"TxDOT has very few friends in the Legislature."

Department of Transportation feeling heat from miffed lawmakers

August 18, 2008

By Enrique Rangel
The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN - Six months ago, at a joint hearing of two state Senate panels, Texas Department of Transportation officials dropped a bombshell.

The agency had made a $1.1 billion accounting error (money counted twice), TxDOT officials told the members of the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. To make matters worse, the over accounted money was budgeted for 54 projects across the state - none in the Panhandle/South Plains region, though - and they would have to be indefinitely delayed or cancelled.

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon hasn't forgotten and she wants to make sure the accounting goof is not swept under the rug. So, the San Antonio Democrat has asked the state auditor to trace the mistake and explain to a legislative panel overseeing all state agencies how it happened.

"The paper trail needs to be documented chronologically from the very beginning of the error," McClendon, a member of the Sunset Advisory Commission, said in her Aug. 8 letter to state auditor John Keel. "In conducting this research and analysis in your audit, please look back as early as Jan. 9, 2008."

McClendon, who was unavailable for comment, requested an explanation of an error that occurred this year. But for TxDOT, this is just the latest in a series of issues that has put the agency on notice that the Legislature is not happy with the way it operates. Some lawmakers are unhappy with TxDOT's performance in recent years. Others complain that the agency actively promotes a network of toll roads that Gov. Rick Perry proposed but that a growing number of Texans oppose.

The Sunset Commission has heard those complaints and the 12-member panel, which Republican Rep. Carl Isett of Lubbock chairs, is expected to recommend an overhaul of the beleaguered agency when the Legislature convenes in January.

The staff of the Sunset Commission recommends getting rid of the five agency commissioners and replacing them with one commissioner who would have to be reappointed every two years. Another option is to review the agency every four years instead of 12, as it is usually the case.

There are 167 state agencies, boards and commissions and typically each comes under Sunset review every 12 years. In this two-year cycle, TxDOT and 26 other agencies, boards and commissions are up for review. After a review, Sunset members recommend to the Legislature whether an agency should be abolished because it is no longer useful, or, be overhauled.

Other troubled agencies due for review this cycle include the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Youth Commission.

"This agency has some serious issues," Isett said of TxDOT. "It is a very important agency and we need it because it's in charge of our roads and highways. But "this agency is way behind the curb in technology."

"They have a cavalier attitude," added Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, a commission member. "How in the world can they make an error like that and expect everyone to say oh well.' As Sen. (Glenn) Hegar said, Why didn't somebody get fired over that?' "

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said he could not comment on individual complaints but added that the agency is cooperating with the state auditor and is working with the Sunset Commission members and other legislators to address their concerns.

"We meet regularly with the members of the Sunset Commission," Lippincott said. "We're working with them to improve the conversation between the chairman and the members of the Legislature."

William Lutz, managing editor of the Lone Star Report, an online publication which specializes on legislative issues, said TxDOT has had many problems over the years and they are mainly self-created.

There are two which stand out.
  • First, TxDOT officials have not shown the Legislature the respect it deserves because they seem to think that the only state official they are accountable to is Gov. Rick Perry, Lutz explained.
  • Second, about two or three years ago the agency tried to tell the Dallas and Houston toll road authorities how to run their operations even though those cities have had toll roads for years. Lawmakers from the two urban areas were furious because they believe in local control.
Lutz recalled that a Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee hearing last year, the late Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson would not commit himself to a meeting with Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the panel's chairman, even though Carona said Williamson could pick the date and hour.

Williamson died in December and in April Perry named Deirdre Delisi, his former chief of staff, chairwoman of the commission.

The heated exchange between Carona and Williamson, which can be seen on YouTube, epitomizes the relationship between TxDOT and the Legislature, Lutz said.

"This is not just anyone asking you for a meeting," he said. "This is a key senator, the chairman of the committee overseeing your agency."

Consequently, "TxDOT has very few friends in the Legislature," Lutz added. "You can count them with one hand."

Ultimately, what happens to TxDOT depends on what the Sunset Commission recommends to the Legislature and what the lawmakers do when they are back in session next year.

"The last three months we have seen a kinder and gentler TxDOT" because they are trying to be back in good graces with the Legislature, Lutz said. However, "I think they're in big trouble and the question is whether the agency is ready to fix the problem. The second question is how far the Legislature is ready to go" in overhauling TxDOT. (512) 673-7553

© 2008 The Lubbock

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