"A lot of members think I'm going to go over and set fire to the place and see who survives the blaze."
By Brandi Grissom, Austin Bureau
El Paso Times
AUSTIN -- El Paso state Rep. Joe Pickett will lead one of the most powerful committees in the Texas House, overseeing a multibillion-dollar transportation department that he once chided as a bully and has lambasted as secretive.
Pickett will be chairman of the House Transportation Committee, one of dozens of assignments Texas House Speaker Joe Straus announced Thursday, allowing the chamber to get to work on legislation a month after the session began.
Long considered an expert on transportation issues, Pickett, who is also chairman of the El Paso Municipal Planning Organization, said he was honored that Straus chose him to lead the committee.
"It's a big deal," Pickett said. "It's something that I'm very passionate about and I'd like to think I'm prepared to do. It's a huge honor and a huge responsibility."
Pickett has had a thorny relationship with the Texas Department of Transportation, the primary department that his committee will oversee.
In 2007, he filed a bill that would have abolished the Texas Transportation Commission, the department's governing board.
He also vehemently opposed the creation of the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority in El Paso. He said that it was unnecessary and that state Transportation Department officials bullied the city into creating the board by threatening funding for critical projects.
Pickett has also chastised the Transportation Department for not being open enough about its spending and for having what he considers an insatiable appetite for toll roads.
Despite past unpleasantness, Pickett said, he hopes to create open lines of communication with the department to try to handle the state's growing transportation needs.
"A lot of members think I'm going to go over and set fire to the place and see who survives the blaze," he said. "I'm not going to do that. I'm going to find things we can all agree on and go from there."
Pickett said his first priority for the committee would be ensuring that Texas communities have the resources they need to put federal economic stimulus dollars to work right away on transportation projects.
El Pasoan Ted Houghton, a member of the Transportation Commission who has in the past been on the receiving end of Pickett's ire, said he was confident Pickett would "do the right thing" with his powerful new position.
Pickett's appointment, Houghton said, is good for El Paso.
"Anytime you get placed in a leadership position, you get a lot of opportunity and you get to see a lot of things and effectuate change and help your community out at the same time," Houghton said.
El Paso Mayor John Cook said Pickett's appointment was a victory for the entire city.
"It's not just that he's chair of that committee, but it also gives him a lot of influence in other things."
Other House legislators from El Paso also fared well in committee assignments.
State Rep. Norma Chávez will remain on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which helps write the two-year state budget. She will also be on the Calendars Committee, which determines which bills make it to the House floor for a vote and when.
Both Chávez and Pickett were also assigned to the Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee, a key panel for El Paso because of Fort Bliss.
"El Paso came out smelling like a rose," Chávez said.
State Reps. Chente Quintanilla, Joe Moody and Marisa Marquez also said they were pleased with their committee assignments.
Quintanilla will be on the Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, which could be the first stop for any bill that would allow the Tiguas to resume gambling at Speaking Rock Casino.
Overall, Quintanilla said, the House delegation received assignments that bode well for the border city.
Assigning legislators to committees was the first big challenge for newly elected House Speaker Straus, a San Antonio Republican.
Given the narrowly divided House -- 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats -- and Straus' promise of bipartisan and fair leadership, political observers were keen to see whether the assignments reflected those pledges.
Ross Ramsey, editor of the online political journal Texas Weekly, said that at first glance it seems Straus' appointments mirror the makeup of the House and don't indicate he exacted retribution against his opponents.
For example, former Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick wasn't made chairman of any committee, but he was assigned to the influential State Affairs and Energy Resources Committees.
Ramsey said he didn't expect a lot of grumbling about Straus' assignments in the House.
"I suspect they just come back and get to work," he said.
Brandi Grissom may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org;512-479-6606.
© 2009 El Paso Times: www.elpasotimes.com
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