Friday, May 08, 2009

"All the bad bills we’ve been watching have, in fact, been filed as amendments."

House tackles Texas Department of Transportation sunset bill


by Andy Hogue
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2009

The sun may not set on the Texas Department of Transportation, based on how the agency’s Sunset Bill has been amended so far. But the sun had literally set on lawmakers arguing back and forth over the bill well into the evening.

Discussion on HB 300 did not start until late afternoon on May 7, due to a longer-than-expected debate on preschool funding bill HB 130 which lasted until around 4 p.m. (and, thus, canceled a members’ basketball game set for that night).

Amendments outnumbered the physical size of the bill two-to-one, as 400 pages of them — about 165, all told — were proposed to the 200-page HB 300. In addition, about 30 amendments to the amendments had to be considered.

The most surprising event of the evening was passage of an amendment turning the existing five-member, appointed Texas Transportation Commission into a 15-member board – consisting of 14 members elected per region and one statewide commissioner.

According to author Rep. Carl Isett (R-Lubbock), HB 300 takes much of its text from the Sunset Commission’s recommendations in late 2008 and from the remnants of a bill filed by House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Pickett (R-El Paso). (See LAVERGNE, May 1, for an interview with Pickett, and a description of which elements were gleaned from his bill and put into HB 300.)

Amendments aplenty

"Very few amendments affect the core of what the bill intends to do," Isett said.

The following noteworthy amendments had been debated and/or approved by LAVERGNE’s deadline May 7.

*15-member commission amendment. After an hour and a half’s worth of discussion, House members voted by a large margin to approve Amendment 1 by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), which provided for the election of the Transportation Commissioner. Though McClendon’s original amendment called for the election of a single commissioner, the amendment was amended by Rep. David Leibowitz (D-San Antonio) to create 14 regional, elected commissioners (in addition to a chairman elected on an at-large basis).

Leibowitz said the number 14 is based on the number of appellate court districts in Texas.

"What do you think the chances of Dayton, Texas, getting a regional commissioner, are?" said Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton).

"I think if John Otto would run, he would win," Leibowitz said, arguing that the geographical boundaries could be re-set by the Legislature every decade under his amendment to the amendment.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) voiced concerns that transportation commission districts would have to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department under the federal Voting Rights Act. King noted the districts would represent about 1.4 million people each — twice as many as a Texas Senate district.

Earlier in debate, McClendon said the election of a central figure would increase accountability and "put the agency on a new and solid footing with the public." She noted an elected commissioner would eliminate the TxDOT executive director position.

"With the Land Commissioner, you know who to go to. You know the buck stops with him," McClendon said, also noting the Comptroller’s office, Agriculture department, etc., as examples of state offices with a central, elected authority.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) said she "struggles with the elected part … Everything would be politicized, where the money would be directed. (Representation) would never be rural — it would always be Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, etc."

Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) said if a single-commissioner plan becomes law, a meeting of the Transportation Commission would not fall under Texas Open Meetings Act provisions, and could be held behind closed doors. "With five people, the meeting has to be open," Phillips said.

Isett said he "disagrees fundamentally" with the principle of electing a commissioner (or 14, for that matter).

The Legislature would be able to fill a vacancy on the 14-member commission under an amendment to the amendment by Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth).

*Provisions to defund TxDOT lobbyists. The amendment by Rep. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) passed without much discussion.

*Preventing MPOs from hiring registered lobbyists. The amendment filed by Rep. Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) passed with minimal discussion, prohibiting Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) from hiring professionals to lobby the state of Texas.

*Trans-Texas Corridor stricken from statute. Approved 144-0, the amendment authored in stereo by Kolkhorst and Leibowitz strikes language pertaining to the Trans-Texas Corridor toll road network from law. Pickett offered an amendment to exempt I-69, part of the Corridor which is already under development.

* Allowing cost to be a factor in selecting engineering and construction firms. Though the amendment was tabled, Isett called Rep. Jodie Laubenberg’s (R-Rockwall) plan to change the way firms are selected for construction jobs "worthy of discussion." The law currently allows TxDOT to ask only about the qualifications of an engineering firm. Inquiring about overhead cost is forbidden.

"The system is just plain wrong, and Texans deserve better," Isett said. "And if for no other reason than to shine some light into this arcane law, this [hour-long] conversation was worth it."

Other amendments not discussed on the floor before deadline ranged from crucial to relatively obscure. One amendment dealt with issuing a state license plate for Texas-based Notre Dame alumni. Other amendments proposed included restricting the number of red light cameras. One notable bill, filed by Pickett, pertains to a gas tax refund plan for miles driven on toll roads.

Terri Hall, director of Texas TURF (Texans United for Reform and Freedom) an anti-toll-road organization, said many floor amendments had had previous lives as bills heard in committee.

"All the bad bills we’ve been watching have, in fact, been filed as amendments," Hall said, in an e-mail statement. "… We support a Legislative Oversight Committee and Inspector General, and that MPOs have at least 75 percent elected officials and that only elected officials have voting powers."

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