Sunday, January 04, 2009

Unfinished Business

Legislature: Big news will be coming out of Austin, too


Copyright 2009

Much of the world's attention is on Washington, D.C., these days as the United States prepares for the transition from beleaguered President George W. Bush to President-elect Barack Obama.

It has largely overshadowed just about everything in Texas except the debate over whether Jerry Jones erred in his decision to give Wade Phillips more time to turn the Dallas Cowboys into Super Bowl contenders.

Don't forget, however, more than a week before Obama takes the oath of office, Texas legislators will be back at work in Austin facing many hot issues of their own.

Perhaps one of the most important topics will be transportation. Of late, that debate has focused on several hot issues, including Gov. Rick Perry's vision for a Trans-Texas Corridor that would turn wide swaths of Texas land into multi-use corridors for modern highways, rail lines and pipelines.

Perry's plan has fanned some fires, with some of the most strident protests coming from Texans who think such corridors would eat up massive amounts of private land.

Another hot topic has been the state's increasing reliance upon toll roads for new highway construction — an issue that gained even further heat when Perry and the Texas Department of Transportation launched an initiative to privatize the development of segments of the Trans Texas Corridor.

Ric Williamson, the former TxDOT Commission chairman who championed Perry's approach to highway construction, died a little more than a year ago, but the governor replaced him with another trusted lieutenant, Deirdre Delisi, and has kept up the effort to carry out his transportation vision.

Two years ago, the Legislature tried to derail Perry's plans but the result was more of a stalemate, leaving much unfinished business to be conducted during the session that opens Jan. 13.

East Texans have a big stake in this debate because it will likely affect the timing of the construction of the Interstate 69 "NAFTA Highway" that will pass through our region. Whether the new highway will be a toll road and whether it will be part of the Trans Texas Corridor are also important considerations for East Texans.

Other key issues that East Texans should track as the Texas Legislature convenes this year include:

- EDUCATION — There are sure to be efforts to "fine tune" the extensive education funding reforms adopted by the Texas Legislature two years ago. There are still questions about whether the state's new "margins tax" is sufficient to keep up with the commitments to local school districts who are now capped on their local tax rates. And few people are convinced the state's school accountability system is working. We will also be watching to see if lawmakers will recognize the important role that career-oriented technical and vocational programs can play in elevating the peformance and graduation rates of Texas students.

- WATER — This will always be a controversial issue in Texas. The state long ago passed a tipping point in key metropolitan areas that turned water supplies into a turf battle and the biggest front in that battle squarely pits East Texas against the burgeoning Dallas/Fort Worth region. That region has a clear advantage in numbers, so East Texans need to maintain their advantage in teamwork and visionary planning. The river of oil that once ran under our region was our most important natural resource. The Sabine River and other streams crossing our region have pretty much supplanted that role. At the risk of seeming stingy, we need to protect those resources.

- STATE BUDGET — This is almost always the biggest battle in Austin and this year should be especially troublesome because of concerns about the impact of the economy on the state's revenues. Falling retail sales mean flagging sales tax revenues and that could spell hot debates in Austin about what to do about programs ranging from children's health care to prison operations.

The last time lawmakers faced tough spending questions some very important programs were shortchanged.

Many more issues will be raised in Austin over the legislative session and it would surprise few people if the hottest battle involves something many consider to be on the back burner today. The most fervent hope that many people have is the Legislature can get down to work in Austin and get the job done in the constitutionally prescribed 140 days. For most Texans, that's more than enough.

© 2009 Longview News-Journal:

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