Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"The real wildcard factor in the passage of the TxDOT Sunset bill is who gets appointed to the bill’s conference committee."

TxDOT sunset bill headed for Senate floor


Angy Hogue
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2009

Policy disagreements between the Senate and House over the future of Texas’ transportation agency are becoming increasingly apparent days away from an expected Senate floor debate.

Thirty-four amendments — including what seems to be the original version of the Local Options Transportation Bill — were placed into the committee substitute of the TxDOT Sunset Bill (HB 300/SB 1019), following a unanimous vote by the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee this week.

With enough legislative will in the Senate to have passed the Local Option Transportation Bill (SB 855) just a month ago, it would stand to reason that senators may not be opposed to including its contents in the Sunset Bill. And Senate Transportation Committee members seem confident the TxDOT Sunset Bill will pass the upper chamber next week, even though many floor amendments (and a long afternoon and evening) are likely.

Add this to a tense debate in the House Transportation Committee May 20, after which TxDOT officials called for a rebuke from by the Federal Highway Administration regarding HB 300, and that made for a tense week for anyone involved in reshaping TxDOT and the Texas Transportation Commission.

Which form the Senate bill will take is anyone’s guess at this point. But the real wildcard factor in the passage of the TxDOT Sunset bill is who gets appointed to the bill’s conference committee, which will hash out the differences between the House and Senate versions. Time is also a player, with Sine Die June 1.

Pickett’s charge

A letter from the Federal Highway Administration on May 19 charged that certain aspects of TxDOT Sunset (the House version, at least — HB 300) were not in accord with federal law. This merited a response on May 21 by House Transportation Chairman Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso).

Janice Weingart Brown, Texas division director of the Federal Highway Administration, said HB 300 "appears to be inconsistent with core concepts of our program."

The Highway Administration letter surfaced almost immediately after the heated committee meeting in which Texas Transportation Commissioner Deirdre Delisi and TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz were grilled by the House Transportation Committee. In that meeting, TxDOT officials claimed HB 300 would put federal funds at risk of being revoked.

HB 300 would allocate a great deal of its construction funds to the 50 MPOs throughout Texas — part of Pickett’s plan to decentralize the agency, and a bone of contention that morning. Saenz and Pickett exchanged banter for several minutes on what that plan would do to the state. Pickett called TxDOT "masters of the spin — masters of ‘the sky is falling.’"

"The manner in which proposed HB 300 is implemented could create serious conflicts with Federal law and regulation. …" Brown’s letter read, before listing six areas of concerns from Article II of HB 300.

Most of the problems Brown cited, Pickett said, were longstanding TxDOT practices simply implemented on a larger scale by HB 300, or were practices that federal statute does not specifically forbid or allow.

"… I appreciate your comments. I wish however that they had come as part of a more collaborative process, rather than at the request of a state agency that fears losing the control it wielded with a heavy hand for many years," Pickett wrote back. "We have moved to a new era of transportation planning and funding in Texas, with more being requested of our local governments. It is only appropriate that we try to allow local governments a greater role in the planning process that affects their regions. TxDOT seems dedicated to preserving the status quo and I regret that they have involved you in that mission on their behalf."

This situation is in many ways a replay of 2007, when a transportation bill (HB 1892/SB 792) received a sharp reprimand from the Federal Highway Administration — that is, until U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison stepped in, and spurred the U.S. Department of Transportation (which oversees the highway administration) to say HB 1892 was in line with federal law.

Local Option plan plays Trojan horse

Over the week, a group of senators worked on amendments to the bill that met with the pleasure of Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), the sponsor of the Senate version of TxDOT Sunset. Thirty-four amendments out of 67 were briefly discussed — making them eligible for debate on the Senate floor within the next fortnight.

Amendment 64 looked awfully familiar. As a matter of fact, it looks like the wording of Committee Chairman Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas)’s original version of SB 855, the Local Transportation Options Bill, which seeks to empower counties and large metropolitan areas to call elections to raise certain fees and motor fuel taxes to fund road construction and maintenance projects.

A copy of the amendment obtained by LSR on May 21 deals with a large variety of transportation projects — including rail lines and "mobility improvement projects," the amendment says. No word was available by press time on what exactly "mobility projects" meant, leaving observers and some members of the press corps in the dark.

The Local Option plan, for those unfamiliar, would give County Commissioners courts power to call elections on raising the motor vehicle fuels sales tax and other fees for itemized transportation projects. Carona referred to this plan as a "menu" of options for local communities.

Earlier in the session, the State Republican Executive Committee opposed SB 855, though the Texas Democratic Party has as of yet issued no statement.

"This issue is obviously a moving target, so we have to keep up the pressure," said opponent Michael Quinn Sullivan, of the conservative Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. "This Carona amendment, like the legislation before it, has no transparency and no accountability. But it does give government more ways to waste your hard-earned money."

Differences between the versions

Some other notable amendments to the committee substitute for TxDOT Sunset are as follows:

  • MPOs: HB 300 called for TxDOT to figure out how to best distribute money for construction and maintenance projects to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), but the Senate is now supporting a plan which gives the Texas Transportation Commission the power to allocate a majority of its maintenance and construction funds.
  • Transportation Commission: The committee substitute draft calls for a five-member, governor-appointed TTC with two-year terms (down from the six-year terms in current law. HB 300 calls for a 14-member, elected TTC. The original SB 1019 called for a single, governor-appointed commissioner). "I led the charge for one (commissioner)," Hegar said. "But the point is accountability."
  • Legislative Oversight Committee: The committee substitute draft calls for a 22-member Legislative Oversight Committee with members from the Senate and House Transportation committees and the chairs of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees (HB 300 called for an eight-member oversight committee, and the original SB 1019 called for a six-member committee). "I think it is important for us as legislators to lead by example, and our constituents expect it," Hegar said, "if for nothing else, that we can have communication between the two chambers."
  • Red light cameras: While the House version allowed the cameras, the Senate version would allow them to continue as long as red light runners caught on camera could take a class instead of having to pay a traffic fine.
  • Inspector General: The Senate did not favor a House provision to begin an office of TxDOT inspector general to oversee financing and track project dollars.

As far as similarities go, each version strikes language containing references to the Trans-Texas Corridor multi-modal toll road network, while allowing currently-underway projects (such as a portion of I-69) to continue.

Discussion on the amendments was surprisingly limited, but there were a few testimonies – particularly from anti-toll road activist Terri Hall (with whom Carona has locked horns in previous committee meetings).

"We do not want the expansion of federal lobbying … to use our taxpayer dollars and resources, to influence the passage or failure of legislation in Washington," Hall said, of a ban on TxDOT officials lobbying Congress in the bill. "That is absolutely a fraud on the taxpayers, I think."

Hall, also representing Texas TURF, opposed converting existing freeways into toll roads and supported increasing the number of elected officials on MPOs.

"We don’t agree with a private entity using debt and toll equity as a form of security on these projects," she said, addressing financial implications.

DMV creation likely

Although the local transportation options bill is being rolled into the TxDOT Sunset, another expected element passed as a bill on its own in the Senate.

The Senate on May 19 passed on final reading HB 3097, which would set up a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) carved out of certain TxDOT responsibilities. If signed by Gov. Rick Perry, HB 3097 would transfer all duties related to Vehicle Titles and Registration, Motor Vehicle Division, Motor Carrier Division and the Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority from TxDOT to the new DMV.

The bill did not include vehicle inspection or drivers licenses responsibilities, which were expected to be taken from the Department of Public Safety in its Sunset bill. The bill calls for a DMV Sunset review date of 2015.

© 2009 The Lone Star Report: www.lonestarreport.org

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