Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Driving on a toll road cost 10 to 15 times as much as a freeway... all that extra revenue will pad a lot of politicians' and contractors' pockets."

State GOP pushes toll-road propaganda


Paul Mulshine
The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
Copyright 2008

In a recent press release on opposition to a hike in the state gas tax, the state Senate Republicans included this comment about the future of gas-tax revenues:

"Even the United States Secretary of Transportation has acknowledged the gas tax is an unsustainable source of revenue for transportation projects. 'We can't afford to continue pinning our transportation network's future to the gas tax,' said Mary Peters, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, in a statement to 'Advances in higher fuel-efficiency vehicles and alternative fuels are making the gas tax an even less sustainable support for funding roads, bridges and transit systems.'

Not only is this absolute nonsense, it represents little more than Bush administration propaganda in favor of the exact approach on toll roads recently rejected overwhelmingly by New Jerseyans.

Peters is a shameless advocate for the multinational companies trying to replace freeways with toll roads. She is a major force behind the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive toll road project that is the biggest scam on the motorist ever envisioned by greedy politicians.

The idea that gas-tax revenues will be shrinking in the future is the big lie of the toll-road pirates. In fact, federal Energy Information Administration figures show that motor fuel usage is expected to rise through 2030. Tax revenues will rise accordingly. Even if gas and diesel usage were to fall off a bit, an increase of mere pennies in the tax would offset the difference.

The New Jersey GOP proposes using motor-vehicle fees rather than gas-tax revenues to replenish our Transportation Trust Fund.

This nice in theory, but it's just another false promise.

Back when these guys were in power, they went on a spending orgy that would shame even the Democrats. Now they want you to believe that you can trust them if they somehow get back in power.

The state government needs those millions in motor-vehicle fees to fund the big pension increases the Republicans forced through during the Whitman administration. That money is also needed to pay off the $8.7 billion the GOP borrowed without voter approval to fund that school-construction debacle. And then there's the $2.6 billion in pension bonds that Christie Whitman also borrowed without voter approval.

The reality is that there are only two ways to fund the highways. And if you're not in favor the gas tax, you're in favor of tolls. And if you don't think that's the real Republican position, think of how hard the GOP establishment fought against Bret Schundler in 2001 when he proposed eliminating Parkway tolls.

In short, when you hear a politician say he's against increasing the gas tax, assume he's in favor of increasing tolls. And then consider the fact that driving on a toll road cost 10 to 15 times as much as driving on a freeway. And that all that extra revenue will pad a lot of politicians' and contractors' pockets.

And also consider that it doesn't matter in the least whether the politician in question is a Democrat named Jon Corzine or a Republican named George W. Bush.

Then it will all become clear.

© 2008 New Jersey

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"If you are paying a fine with someone else's money, there is no personal accountability."

Panel wants fined to pay fines

Ethics group aims to halt tactic of lawmakers breaking rules, then having donors pick up bill.

August 16, 2008

By Laylan Copelin
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

When Texas politicians break the rules on campaign finance, they get fined. Then they get their political donors to pay the fines.

On Friday, members of the Texas Ethics Commission said it's time the Legislature changed that practice so that officeholders and candidates pay the fines themselves.

"If you are paying a fine with someone else's money, there is no personal accountability," said Ross Fischer, an ethics commissioner in charge of drafting recommendations to the Legislature. "When I talk to the public, that offends them more than anything."

The idea was included Friday in a draft copy of recommendations, which also included a suggestion that lawmakers decide how to address bloggers paid by or affiliated with campaigns.

The public is invited to comment on the recommendations, which will be finalized at the commission's December meeting, before the Legislature convenes in January.

Raymond "Tripp" Davenport III, a commission member and former chairman, first suggested that candidates and officeholders pay their own fines.

"It should be punitive in nature, and it's not," Davenport said of the fines. "I want to create a disincentive to breaking the rules."

Most fines against candidates or officeholders are relatively small — a few hundred or a couple thousand dollars, depending on the offense.

But the commission in recent months has begun levying larger fines, specifically in cases involving more money.

This summer, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, paid a $17,300 fine for improperly reimbursing himself with campaign money.

Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, last year was hit for $8,500 for failing to disclose the details of political spending on his credit card.

And former Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, in February received a $10,000 fine, which he is appealing, for illegally buying Austin real estate with campaign dollars.

Lawmakers, however, might be reluctant to change rules that affect them personally.

"It's a steep hill," said Austin Democratic Rep. Mark Strama, who has seen some of his efforts at campaign finance reform end at the Capitol.

"It's going to pass when the public forces the Legislature to do it," Strama said, "which I hope they do."

Of the state's top three leaders, only Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst embraced the idea Friday.

"If someone knowingly or intentionally does something wrong, they ought to pay their fine using personal funds, not campaign funds," he said. "But this is an issue that deserves full debate in the legislative session."

Speaker Tom Craddick, responding through a spokeswoman, said he would leave the issue to the Legislature to decide.

Robert Black, press secretary for Gov. Rick Perry, said, "He's perfectly fine if the Legislature wants to have that debate. He's going to do everything to see that he doesn't get fined in the first place."

Regulating bloggers might be just as difficult.

The issue is whether blogs paid by or affiliated with campaigns should be considered political advertising and labeled and regulated as such.

The commission's draft recommendation offers two different approaches: exempting bloggers altogether or using the Federal Election Commission's rules as a model.

"We're not trying to keep an individual from expressing themselves," Fischer said.

Vince Leibowitz is a blogger and chairman of the Texas Progressive Alliance, a group of 50 of the state's more prominent bloggers.

He said bloggers should not be subject to political advertising regulations. The only exception, he said, are blogs clearly operated by campaigns on campaign Web sites or the blogs of political action committees.

Instead, Leibowitz said the Legislature should put bloggers on equal footing with traditional news media.; 445-3617

© 2008 Austin

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Friday, August 15, 2008

"$15.9 billion doesn't mean squat to me if you don't tell me what it's based on."

Harper-Brown: Highway fund getting short-changed

August 5, 2008

by Mark Lavergne
Volume 15 , Issue 3
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2008

IRVING - The Transportation Summit abounded with big transportation ideas to meet the state's big future transportation needs. Meanwhile, the state itself is coming up short on funds to meet transportation needs of the present.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation met Aug. 13 to examine problems in funding for the state's highways old and new, and possible solutions.

In the spotlight was Fund 6, the state fund that, in theory, is designated for building and maintaining the state's highways. The problem, said committee chairman Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving), is not merely funds that go to Fund 6 that are then diverted to things other than roads, but also funds that ought to go to Fund 6 but never make it there in the first place.

Harper-Brown said she anticipates that in 2009 "we will have an opportunity to make it a transportation session," as TxDOT is under Sunset and because of gas prices and new funding needs. "This is the time if there ever was one," she said.

What Fund 6 pays for

Thomas Galvan, of the Legislative Budget Board (LBB), told the subcommittee what percentage of the Fund 6 money goes where: 86.2 percent to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT); 7.1 percent (about $1 billion) to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS); 5.1 percent to benefits for employees at Texas Department of Transportation, the Attorney General's Office, and a few other agencies; a few hundred million to other small agencies, salary increases for the various agencies, etc.

That's just the beginning. Some funding for SB 10, the healthcare bill from last session, is coming from Fund 6 this biennium ¡V about $107 million for medical transportation. DPS's $1 billion a year pays for employees benefits including insurance and retirement. The Texas Education Agency receives $100 million each biennium for public school transportation. (The recent school finance summit hosted by Commissioner Robert Scott featured a veritable choir of superintendents saying they will need more.)

The Health and Human Services Commission gets $20 million each biennium for ambulance services. Also $66.9 million goes for (mostly TxDOT but a few others) employee salary increases (for salaries altogether it's about $623 million). The Texas Transportation Institute gets $12.8 million each biennium, and the Office of the Attorney General $11.5 million. The latter went towards transportation-related cases such as right of way acquisition.

The Texas Historical Commission also is receiving funding from TxDOT's portion of Fund 6, about $500,000 a year. Another $6.3 million each biennium goes to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH), for DPS' license verification program. The Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney's Office receives about $1.9 million a biennium to prosecute motor vehicle tax fraud cases. The unit has received money from Fund 6 as far back as LBB's records show, which is 1990, Galvan said. Most other diversions started after 2000.

Jim Smith, a financial analyst for the Comptroller's Office, told the subcommittee that currently 10 state agencies receive appropriations from Fund 6. As of July 31, Fund 6's cash balance was $4.3 billion. But Harper-Brown questioned how much of that was going to local communities for local transportation needs.

What Fund 6 should be getting paid, but isn't

Harper-Brown asked for a consolidated list of revenue that should be going to Fund 6 but isn't. "One of the things that concerns me is that we're always talking about diversions out of Fund 6 that need to be paid for from that fund," Harper-Brown said. "But there are a lot of funds that don't go into Fund 6 and not only are there funds that go into GR that are transportation-related and never made it to our transportation funding, but then some of those ¡K fees are going into the general revenue side, but the expenditures are coming out of the Fund 6 side."

TxDOT's chief financial officer, James Bass, told the subcommittee that a lot of revenue generated by operations managed and paid for by TxDOT, which thus should go to Fund 6, is going instead into the state's general revenue (GR) fund.

Among these are the Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, which assesses a $1 fee for each auto insurance policy in the state. That fee is deposited into GR, and paid for by Fund 6. Likewise, historically there has been a $20 permit required to drive oversized and overweight vehicles. From each of those $20 fees, Fund 6 only got 30 cents. Recently the fee was upped to $40, and now the fund receives $20.30, Bass told the subcommittee.

Bass said that if those funds were directed back into the state's highway fund, it could save the state each year about $15 million for the auto theft prevention program, and $7.5 million for overweight permits, or $45 million in Fund 6 per biennium.

TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz said lack of funding for Fund 6, along with diversions from there, were preventing TxDOT from "building and maintaining highway systems."

Rep. Dan Gattis (R-Georgetown) told Saenz, "We need transparency to know what certain agency's budgets are being spent on and making sure that they are being spent on the appropriate things."

Another TxDOT-produced study

Members of the subcommittee balked when Saenz told them that TxDOT had hired two analysts to produce yet another detailed study forecasting the state's future transportation funding needs. The study's magic number: $15.9 billion more per year. Members were skeptical of the report's findings, saying its assumptions and methodology were unclear.

Gattis told study co-author Allan Rutter of Cambridge Systematics that "$15.9 billion doesn't mean squat to me if you don't tell me what it's based on."

Harper-Brown said TxDOT's credibility was in question because of how the agency had crunched numbers.

Rutter defended the report, saying that neither he nor co-author David Rose was told what to put in the report.

Rutter said the number is attributable to the state's booming population, saying vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) will go up 70 percent by 2030 with increased population and affluence.

But Terri Hall of Texans United for Reform and Freedom, the transportation watchdog group that has opposed TxDOT's recent toll road policies, told LSR that the premise of VMTs varying directly with population increase is "totally bogus," citing a 2005 study from the University of Texas-Austin showing that although the state's population is indeed growing, much of the new population is older and making less money, and thus not driving their own vehicles. Harper-Brown also observed that the baby-boom generation was getting ready to retire.

She also criticized the report for not taking high-speed rail, which she believes will play a big role in the state's future infrastructure, into account for determining the state's future funding needs. "Shouldn't we look at a total big picture?"

"Maybe high-speed rail's time has come," she said. "We just can't continue to build these roads. We can't get them done quick enough."

© 2008 The Lone Star

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Small town paper claims Dallas 'Outer Loop' will not be a part of the Trans-Texas Corridor

Erby Cambell Interchange right-of-way being secured; County in good position for Outer Loop selection

August 14, 2008

By Leslie Gibson
Royse City Herald-Banner
Copyright 2008

Slowly but surely, and not visible to the general public, the building blocks of state road construction in Rockwall County are being laid every day.

Royse City is doing “yeoman’s work” in securing right of way for the interchange of Hickory Hill, or Erby Cambell Blvd. with Interstate 30, according to the county’s transportation consultant, John Polster.

Updates on the interchange, on the path of the planned outer loop, and the county’s fight for federal transportation dollars were discussed in the July 23 meeting of the Rockwall County Road Consortium, which consists of members of all participating cities and the county, and Paul Williams of the Dallas office of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Representing Royse City this year are former councilmember Don Becknell, and city manager Karen Phillipi. They, and the council members and mayors of other Rockwall County cities, and commissioners and the county judge, meet to cooperate on each other’s road needs.

Jeff Neal of the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), who always participates in the meetings, said that kind of cooperation is unique in the 16-county membership of NCTCOG.

Concerning Erby Cambell’s interchange with I-30, it was learned that utility relocation should be completed in November, if all of the right of way is secured. Project “letting”, or beginning, should be in May 2009, and last for 24 months. I-30 will go over Erby Cambell.
Fighting for federal money

Through an arm of NCTCOG, the Regional Transportation Council (RTC), federal money is allocated throughout the region, so Rockwall County officials want their own seat on the council, as opposed to sharing a seat as it does now.

But the large established Metroplex cities which hold the 40 seats (of which six belong to the City of Dallas), “don’t want to let go,” Polster said.

RTC by-laws chairman, and NCTCOG transportation director, Michael Morris, visited with the consortium several months ago, and was regaled with the county’s arguments for a seat, and for federal dollars.

Morris “punted” recently, though, Polster said, when he asked Morris about seats for Rockwall and small counties. The answer was that the by-laws committee considers that topic. The by-laws committee is to meet Aug. 21.

County Judge Chris Florance reported that he met with an aide of U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison on the subject.

“They are very much aware that everybody east is flipping out because nothing is happening,” he said, speaking frankly with the group, which meets in a relaxed setting of the third floor of the historical courthouse each fourth Wednesday evening of the month.

“Our congestion is not accurately portrayed in their literature,” Florance added. “They have rated us on their maps as light congestion. It is like ‘East’ is a foreign language to them (RTC).”

Polster said, “The further you get out from the central business district, you get less precise on measurement.” Neal agreed.

Outer Loop

Consortium cooperation should give Rockwall County the edge when it comes to deciding the final route of the planned Regional Outer Loop System, according to Neal.

The Outer Loop is not the Trans Texas corridor. It is NCTCOG’s regional answer to ringing the Metroplex with a road and rail line, based on demographics and traffic counts projected through 2030.

Out of the one-half-mile-wide corridor being studied, ultimately, a 400 to 600 feet wide road will be placed, probably running between Royse City and Fate. However, a Hunt County route has been proposed as a required alternative, Neal said. TxDOT will make the final decision.

“Rockwall has the substantial advantage in this case,” Neal told the consortium July 23. “This corridor has been through the public involvement process,” he said.

Plusses in Rockwall County’s favor are that the consortium and each member city, have approved the Rockwall County route, and it joins the Collin County route.

“Take this message back to the RTC,” Florance told Neal, “that we’ve gone one county out here working together.” His comment came after members asked if Kaufman County officials had proposed a route through their county.

“They’ve been slow to come to the table,” Neal said. “They have kicked off a thoroughfare plan process.” He said he believes NCTCOG will have a Kaufman route defined before the county does. The outer loop in Kaufman may actually “multiplex with I-20” to get to Loop 9,” Neal said. Loop 9 is a southern segment of the outer loop of 44 miles though Dallas, Ellis, and Kaufman Counties between I-20 in Mesquite and US 287 in far western Ellis County.

Plans now do not include the Outer Loop following Farm to Market 548 to Forney, Neal said in response to a question from Mayor Michael Donegan of McLendon-Chisholm.

The Outer Loop will consist of three general purpose toll lanes going in each direction, flanked by discontinuous three-lane frontage roads in each direction. A wide median will separate the two directions of lanes. The median may convert to commuter rail or dedicated truck lanes, as need arises, Neal explained after the meeting.

© 2008 Royse City Herlad

Related Articles:

"Rick Perry has written a letter endorsing the plan to create an outer loop around Dallas-Fort Worth as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor": [LINK]

"Outer loop would be built in segments from 2011 to 2030 as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor." [LINK]

"State officials say they’re ready to do what North Texas leaders have asked for months: convert the Trans-Texas Corridor into a new outer loop toll road around Fort Worth and Dallas." [LINK]

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

“Just the mention of toll roads in Texas is a call to arms. Texans are just not in favor of toll roads.”

Poe talks transportation issues at summit

August 13, 2008

By Sherry Koonce
The Port Arthur News
Copyright 2008

BEAUMONT — A day before he left for Afghanistan to visit the nation’s troops, U.S. Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) visited Beaumont to talk about transportation issues affecting Southeast Texans and local industry.

Serving as special guest speaker at the Southeast Texas Transportation Summit, Poe shared his experiences on three subcommittees in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: Aviation, Highways and Transit, and Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Poe said it was important that the Sabine-Neches Waterway be expanded, especially with the number of industrial expansions ongoing in the area.

Federal funding to deepen and widen the 65-mile long Sabine-Neches Waterway has not yet been appropriated because an Army Corps of Engineer study has been delayed, he said.

Though Poe has requested the study be expedited, he said federal funds would not be appropriated until the study is complete.

“In the end, I expect it will be favorable. We want this study finished by the time the next water bill is taken up,” he said.

With a price tag of $900 million-plus, Poe said he expects the project to be one of the top two on the bill.

The Federal Highway Trust Fund — derived from a gasoline tax imposed at the pump— is steadily decreasing because people are driving less and are driving vehicles that get better gas mileage these days, he said.

Congress could raise the gas tax, or institute toll roads to generate more money, he said.

“Just the mention of toll roads in Texas is a call to arms. Texans are just not in favor of toll roads,” he said.

Poe said he believed highway construction and maintenance money would be appropriated out of the general revenue from income tax funds.

On aviation, he said high fuel prices have the industry in shambles.

© 2008 The Port Arthur

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Senate Transportation Chairman's property management company skimps on maintenance and endangers property owners.

State senator involved in controversy over condos in danger of collapse

August 13, 2008

By Lee McGuir
KHOU-TV (Houston)
Copyright 2008

HOUSTON — For three years Dan Seluk and his wife Andrea have paid maintenance fees to the Park Memorial Condominiums. The same complex city inspectors now warn is in imminent danger of collapse .

The city says the parking garage might simply fall apart and take the dozens of condos that sit above the garage down with them.

But the condo’s management teams had been collecting those maintenance fees for years.

“So you’re probably talking in three years about $15,000 in maintenance fees,” said condo resident Dan Seluk.

The issue even had Houston’s mayor Wednesday wondering what had gone wrong.

“The whole situation seems odd to me,” said Mayor Bill White.

But he wasn’t the only one having doubts.

“There’s a big question. Where have all our maintenance fees gone. Where have they gone?” said Andrew Seluk.

For a long time the money went to a company called Prime Site which was later absorbed by Associa Principal Management Group. In April that company ended its management agreement and copied at the bottom of the letter the company’s CEO, John Carona.

Carona is a state senator, but his day job is CEO of one of the largest property management companies in the nation. Until this summer his group managed the now-hazardous condominiums. He also wrote the Texas Residential Property Owners Protection Act.

“To think that someone in public office is running these companies and is perhaps making a lot of money. And the service of these companies is so terrible and the homeowner’s hands are tied.” said Dan Seluk.

Senator Carona’s office was not available for comment Wednesday, but a spokesman for Associa said the company couldn’t address this issue publicly.

However he said they often rely on condo boards of directors to tell them what needs maintenance in a complex and try to fix problems when they’re brought to their attention.

Meanwhile all the Seluks are left to do is wonder where all their fees went now that their home has become a hazard.

© 2008

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Grimes County Sub-Regional Planning Commission gets formal approval

Commissioners officially approve 391 Commission

Related Link: Texas 391 Commission Alliance


The Navasota Examiner
Copyright 2008

Grimes County Commissioners Monday unanimously approved the creation of the Grimes County Sub-Regional Planning Commission, following the City of Iola in becoming the second governing body in the county to do so.

Also called a 391 commission after the chapter of the Texas Local Government Code which authorizes such commissions, the county will be able to participate in interlocal agreements with other cities or counties within Region 13 of the Brazos Valley Council of Governments.

The county is expected to name its representative to the commission this month, and at least one member of the commissioners’ court must be appointed.

Specifically denied to 391 commissions is the power of eminent domain, but such commissions are expected to take an active role in looking out for the general health, safety and welfare of their residents.

The GCSRPC’s goal is to work with other governing bodies with similar concerns in planning for expanding population in the area, and to look after unique needs of the Grimes County region.

The commission is expected to be active in planning of transportation systems, adequate infrastructure, such as streets, sewer and water, agriculture, business and industrial needs, preservation of cultural and historical values, economic use of public funds and the general quality of life for the area’s residents.

The county is not required to fund any of the commission’s operations or distribute any of the commission’s funds. Also, all commission meetings are subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The county may withdraw from the commission at any time by a majority vote of the commissioners’ court.

© 2008 The Navasota

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Anderson moves toward 391 Sub-Regional Planning Commission

Anderson city council could get on board with 391 Commission


The Navasota Examiner
Copyright 2008

The Anderson City Council is expected to approve an ordinance establishing a 391 Sub-Regional Planning Commission at its Thursday, Aug. 14 meeting at 7 p.m. at the American Legion Hall in Anderson.

Also on Thursday’s agenda is consideration of a request from Cindy Bell of Historic Anderson to allow that group to have a Christmas decoration competition in town.

The council also expects to approve an agreement with the Grimes County Appraisal District for appraisal and tax collection services for the upcoming fiscal year.

In a related matter, the council will review the tax appraisal roll for 2008 for Anderson, consider the tax rate for the 2008-09 budget, set a date for publishing required notices for a budget hearing and the adoption of the new budget.

The council will also consider moving its Sept. 11 meeting to Sept. 18 because of Patriot’s Day.

© 2008 The Navasota

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Monday, August 11, 2008

"The changes would apply to any project a federal agency would fund, build or authorize."

Bush to relax protected species rules

Plan takes scientists out of decision making on species status, and lets federal agencies decide for themselves

Aug. 11, 2008

Staff and news service reports
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration on Monday said it plans to let federal agencies decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants.

The proposal, which does not require the approval of Congress, would reduce the mandatory, independent reviews that government scientists have been performing for 35 years. Developers welcomed the plan, while environmentalists derided it.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said late Monday the changes were needed to ensure that the Endangered Species Act would not be used as a “back door” to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. In May, the polar bear became the first species declared as threatened because of climate change. Warming temperatures are expected to melt the sea ice the bear depends on for survival.

"These changes are designed to reduce the number of unnecessary consultations under the ESA so that more time and resources can be devoted to the protection of the most vulnerable species," the Interior Department said in its announcement.

“The existing regulations create unnecessary conflicts and delays," added Kempthorne. "The proposed regulations will continue to protect species while focusing the consultation process on those federal actions where potential impacts can be linked to the action and the risks are reasonably certain to occur. The result should be a process that is less time-consuming and a more effective use of our resources."

The proposal would bar federal agencies from assessing the emissions from projects that contribute to global warming and its effect on species and habitats.

The Interior Department cited its recent decision on polar bears as an example. While listing polar bears as endangered due to melting sea ice habitat, it argues that scientists at this time cannot "draw a direct causal link between greenhouse gas emissions and distant observations of impacts affecting species.

"As a result, it is inappropriate to consult on a remote agency action involving the contribution of emissions to global warming because it is not possible to link the emissions to impacts on specific listed species such as polar bears," the department stated.

Kempthorne has instead urged lawmakers to deal with climate change via separate legislation, not the Endangered Species Act, which dates from 1973.

Biggest overhaul since 1988

The changes represent the biggest overhaul of the Endangered Species Act since 1988. They would accomplish through regulations what conservative Republicans have been unable to achieve in Congress: ending some environmental reviews that developers and other federal agencies blame for delays and cost increases on many projects.

The changes would apply to any project a federal agency would fund, build or authorize. Government wildlife experts currently perform tens of thousands of such reviews each year.

"If adopted, these changes would seriously weaken the safety net of habitat protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years," said John Kostyack, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming initiative.

"The new rules take decision-making on endangered species listings out of the hands of scientists and wildlife professionals at agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and instead put those decisions in the hands of agencies working on projects that may be adversely affected by a listing," added Sierra Club director Carl Pope.

Under current law, federal agencies must consult with experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to jeopardize any endangered species or to damage habitat, even if no harm seems likely. This initial review usually results in accommodations that better protect the 1,353 animals and plants in the U.S. listed as threatened or endangered and determines whether a more formal analysis is warranted.

Proposal: Agencies have expertise

The Interior Department said such consultations are no longer necessary because federal agencies have developed expertise to review their own construction and development projects, according to the 30-page draft.

"We believe federal action agencies will err on the side of caution in making these determinations," the proposal said.

The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, H. Dale Hall said the changes will help focus expertise on projects that have serious repercussions for species. "We are trying to be more efficient, which means not do consultations that result in a difference for the species," Hall said.

"We are not being good stewards of our resources," he added, "when we pursue consultation in situations where the potential effects to a species are either unlikely, incapable of being meaningfully evaluated, wholly beneficial, or pose only a remote risk of causing jeopardy to the species or its habitat."

The proposal is subject to a 30-day public comment period before being finalized by the Interior Department, giving the administration enough time to impose them before November's presidential election. A new administration could freeze any pending regulations or reverse them, a process that could take months. Congress could also overturn the rules through legislation, but that could take even longer.

The proposal was drafted largely by attorneys in the general counsel's offices of the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Interior Department, according to a source with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The two agencies' experts were not consulted until last week, the official said.

Between 1998 and 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted 300,000 consultations. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which evaluates projects affecting marine species, conducts about 1,300 reviews each year.

The reviews have helped safeguard protected species such as bald eagles, Florida panthers and whooping cranes. A federal government handbook from 1998 described the consultations as "some of the most valuable and powerful tools to conserve listed species."

Those for, against changes

In recent years, however, some federal agencies and private developers have complained that the process results in delays and increased construction costs.

"We have always had concerns with respect to the need for streamlining and making it a more efficient process," said Joe Nelson, a lawyer for the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition, a trade group for home builders and the paper and farming industry.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the proposed changes illegal.

"This proposed regulation is another in a continuing stream of proposals to repeal our landmark environmental laws through the back door," she said. "If this proposed regulation had been in place, it would have undermined our ability to protect the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and the gray whale."

The Bush administration and Congress have attempted with mixed success to change the law.

In 2003, the administration imposed similar rules that would have allowed agencies to approve new pesticides and projects to reduce wildfire risks without asking the opinion of government scientists about whether threatened or endangered species and habitats might be affected. The pesticide rule was later overturned in court. The Interior Department, along with the Forest Service, is currently being sued over the rule governing wildfire prevention.

In 2005, the House passed a bill that would have made similar changes to the Endangered Species Act, but the bill died in the Senate.

The sponsor of that bill, then-House Resources chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., told the AP Monday that allowing agencies to judge for themselves the effects of a project will not harm species or habitat.

"There is no way they can rubber stamp everything because they will end up in court for every decision," he said.

But internal reviews by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that about half the unilateral evaluations by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that determined wildfire prevention projects were unlikely to harm protected species were not legally or scientifically valid.

Those had been permitted under the 2003 rule changes.

"This is the fox guarding the hen house. The interests of agencies will outweigh species protection interests," said Eric Glitzenstein, the attorney representing environmental groups in the lawsuit over the wildfire prevention regulations. "What they are talking about doing is eviscerating the Endangered Species Act."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2008

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Austin's National Laboratory for Bad Governent: Leglislators "pushdown" with unfunded mandates on local governments

Texas No. 49, and proud of it?

August 10, 2008

The Waco Tribune Herald
Copyright 2008

An indictment of state priorities is manifest in a recent report about how little Texas spends on what it needs.

For those who rejoice at low taxes, consider:

One of the underlying points is that while state lawmakers claim the high ground, spending- wise, they too often issue unfunded mandates. That tendency makes local governments the black hats in raising taxes.

The next politician who says the state spends too much should review the report Building Texas by the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

It points out that Texas ranks 49th in state taxes per capita.

And we wonder why Texas has to shut down highway construction for lack of funding, or why a waiting list stretches into the horizon for services for the mentally retarded and for individuals with mental health needs.

The irony is that though Texas ranks 49th in state taxes, it ranks 13th in the nation in property taxes. Why? In part, it is because of those unfunded mandates. They force cities, counties, school districts and community colleges to lean on local tax rates to do what the state orders.

Coming into the last Legislature, the subject of unfunded mandates was discussed by the Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform.

Gov. Rick Perry has assailed property appraisal creep as a “stealth tax.” Perry’s task force acknowledged grudgingly that unfunded mandates are even stealthier. They allow lawmakers to say they held down taxes, while foisting expenses onto local governments that force them to raise their taxes or to get by with fewer resources.

McLennan County Judge Jim Lewis says that 70 percent of his budget is state-required programs.

Some say that the syndrome called “push down” — when local governments raise the taxes, makes the process more representative than when the state raises them. That would be the case if the local governments had any say in the mandates. Instead, the mandates allow lawmakers and the governor to claim they are the picture of austerity.

Beyond the issue of unfunded mandates is the overarching question of what kind of a state we are and should be. Must we rely on toll roads for every highway construction project we need? Let’s hope not.

Must we let state parks wither, water resources dry up, services for the elderly, mentally ill and mentally retarded fall farther and farther behind as those populations grow?

One of the problems is that in recent years policymakers have put tax cuts ahead of these obligations.

The evidence shows that far from overtaxing its citizens, Texas is catching a free ride on local governments’ backs and also the backs of those who need its services the most.

© 2008 Waco

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