Sunday, November 30, 2008

"We're spending $10.5 million, more than we've ever spent, and the trust could not be at a lower level than it is today."

TxDOT public information costs state millions a year


By Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — When state lawmakers expressed surprise at the size of the Texas Department of Transportation's government relations and public affairs operation, they didn't know the half of it.

The heft of TxDOT's Government and Public Affairs division — which is budgeted for 63 people and nearly $6.5 million a year — raised eyebrows this year after concerns the agency had promoted issues such as toll roads and the ambitious Trans-Texas Corridor network despite opposition from the public and a number of lawmakers.

It turns out the GPA division is only part of the agency's public-information picture. Sixty-seven more people do public information or media relations for TxDOT, including those working at the huge agency's district office.

TxDOT said it couldn't tally how much is budgeted for such duties outside GPA, saying most if not all the staffers also do other tasks. Their salaries alone amount to $4 million a year, according to figures released in response to a public information request from the San Antonio Express-News.

That means $10.5 million is spent annually on government and public affairs by TxDOT, largely excluding staffers who promote tourism and travel.

“So — $10.5 million to communicate as poorly as we have communicated is probably not acceptable,” said Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, a member of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is considering changes at TxDOT and had a hearing this year that included a look at GPA's size.

“I see great value in having communicators. My problem has been how they have communicated — how badly they have botched a message where you have protesters on the lawn of not only the Capitol but all across the state of Texas,” said Kolkhorst, who emphasized her concern is with Austin's GPA division rather than district staffers.

Kolkhorst, who pushed a moratorium on privately operated toll roads in 2007, has taken issue with TxDOT's approach. TxDOT's commission is appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, who has championed toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor, and the agency has been accused of too actively following suit.

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said agency efforts have been within the law's parameters. A huge response to town hall meetings and to a solicitation of comments on the Trans-Texas Corridor — and the agency's responsiveness to concerns — show the effectiveness of its communication efforts, he said.

Lippincott also said issues like toll roads make up only part of TxDOT's public information operation, which also works to inform people on such things as routes to take when hurricanes are imminent and road changes.

“We touch just about everybody in this state that gets in a car or gets on a bus or a train,” he said, “and that requires a lot of interaction.”

Outgoing House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, said TxDOT handles complex issues that require communication and public hearings.

Lippincott noted that the amount spent on the GPA s division and other public information efforts amounts to a tiny fraction — 0.125 percent, or one-eighth of 1 percent — of TxDOT's nearly $8.4 billion annual budget. He noted TxDOT is in a hiring “chill” affecting the GPA division, which currently has just 54 positions filled.

The total is, however, larger than what the other five largest state agencies in Texas calculate they spend under the label of government and public affairs. The one that comes closest is the Department of State Health Services, with 30 people in its consumer, external affairs and Web office, with a combined budget of $2.54 million.

That's 0.09 percent, or less than one-tenth of a percent, of the agency's total annual budget of nearly $2.8 billion.

Among others:

•The Texas Education Agency has 17 people in communications, governmental relations, media services and Web services, budgeted at $1.3 million. The total is nearly 0.005 — or less than one-hundredth of a percent — of the $26.3 billion in funds that flow through the agency.

•The Health and Human Services Commission has 21 people in communications and external relations offices, budgeted at nearly $1.6 million — 0.0099 percent, or just under a hundredth of a percent, of its $16 billion annual budget. That total doesn't include $2.35 million for advertising work related to two public information campaigns.

•The Department of Aging and Disability Services has 21 people in communications and government relations, with a $1.15 million tab for overhead and salaries — nearly 0.019 percent, or far less than a tenth of a percent, of its total budget of nearly $6.2 billion annually.

•The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has 18 people in government and public affairs, budgeted at $769,717. That's nearly 0.027 percent — less than a 10th of a percent — of its total budget of nearly $2.9 billion.

“It's not apples-to-apples to compare TxDOT to another state agency, because they have a different mission, and it's a far more complex process which requires communication with the public at a level of pervasiveness and complexity probably unmatched elsewhere in state government,” Krusee said.

Kolkhorst said, “The No. 1 thing that the Sunset report talked about was that this agency had lost the trust of the people. And how do you lose trust? You lose trust by actions and words, and I'm very disappointed that we're spending $10.5 million, more than we've ever spent, and the trust could not be at a lower level than it is today.”

Portions © 2008 KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News

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