Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"We'll continue to have this discussion for 140 days"

Sunset for TxDOT board? Lawmakers prefer single chief

But 'sunset' report is only advisory to Legislature. Some want to retain five-member board, while others want to elect TxDOT leader


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

The five-member Texas Transportation Commission should be abolished and replaced with a single commissioner appointed by the governor, the Texas Sunset Review Commission decided Tuesday.

However, the 7-5 vote by the commission, as well as many other changes for the Texas Department of Transportation included in the commission's report, amount only to suggestions to the Legislature. The narrow vote, and the opposition of four of the five senators on the commission, suggests that the question of how to govern TxDOT is far from settled.

"I suspect you may have a problem getting it out of the Senate," commission co-chairman Carl Isett, a Republican House member from Lubbock, said immediately after the vote.

One member pointed out one significant impact of having a single commissioner: no more open meetings of the commission, which makes key decisions. And some members, reflecting the bulk of public comment in recent months, said they would prefer that Texans elect a transportation commissioner. State Rep. Ruth McClendon, D-San Antonio, said she'll carry legislation to make that change in 2009.

"We'll continue to have this discussion for 140 days" during the coming legislative session, said state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, also a co-chair of the Sunset commission.

The discussion, which lasted most of Tuesday afternoon, was another in a string of unpleasant ones for the TxDOT executives lined up in the Capitol hearing room's front row. The Legislature in 2007 began and ended the session in open revolt against what many lawmakers of both parties see as the high-handed tactics of TxDOT during the past five years or so. That official restiveness had the bad luck, from TxDOT's vantage point, of coming just as the once-every-12-years sunset review was scheduled to occur.

Make that once-every-four-years, at least for now. The commission approved giving the agency just four years until its next turn on the griddle. In addition — all of these changes would only become law if they are included in a final sunset bill for TxDOT next spring — a newly created Transportation Legislative Oversight Committee would examine everything TxDOT does and how it does it in the coming years. A consultant company would be hired to conduct what would amount to a management audit of the agency. And four divisions of TxDOT, including vehicle licensing and its motor carrier office, would be broken off into a new Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

"We are trying to restructure an agency," Isett said.

But he opposed the single commissioner idea, arguing that for a service like transportation where large sums of money are spent on roads throughout the state, it would be better to retain the five-member commission and stipulate that the members come from five geographic districts. Historically, governors have attempted to maintain some sort of rough balance in their appointments of transportation commission members, but Isett would put that requirement in law.

Isett said that the real problem with TxDOT isn't the appointed leaders, but rather the "culture in that building across the street" (TxDOT's headquarters on 11th Street) of making it difficult for outsiders to accurately gauge what is going on.

But state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham , one of TxDOT's harshest critics in recent years, said changing to a single commissioner will make it clear who is responsible for the agency's actions.

"It sends a clear signal," Kolkhorst said, "that we do want change.", 445-3698

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