Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Senate: 'In TxDOT We Trust'

Senate resists TxDOT change

Approval sets up need for quick dealings with House; fight expected to be fierce.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

The Texas Transportation Commission would retain its makeup and most of its powers under the Senate's mammoth version of the Texas Department of Transportation bill, which senators approved late Monday evening.

The 22-9 vote for House Bill 300 sets up negotiations with the House that must be brief because of time constraints and will probably be intense, given the significant differences between what the two chambers have in mind for TxDOT.

Two weeks ago, the House passed a version of the bill that would scuttle the commission, which oversees TxDOT and has five members appointed by the governor, and replace it with a 15-member commission: 14 commissioners elected from geographic districts across the state and the 15th to be picked in a statewide vote.

But the more substantive difference is a requirement, which originated with House Transportation Committee Chairman Joseph Pickett, that authority to decide how to spend up to 90 percent of TxDOT's construction money would be transferred to local transportation planning agencies.

Senate transportation leaders, though critical of how TxDOT leaders ran the agency through most of this decade, have taken the position that agency leaders have heard the public and legislative outcry and can be trusted with the reins of the department. House leaders say they want a housecleaning. The commission under late Chairman Ric Williamson pushed for a toll road-based approach to expanding the state's highway system.

Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, the bill's sponsor, said the Senate and House have the same objective.

"Our goal was to put TxDOT back into the same position it was before the last several sessions," Hegar said. "People in the state of Texas, all they want is roads built and roads repaired. It's that simple."

The bill, already amended 33 times when it was in a Senate committee last week, underwent relatively minor surgery Monday. That included a failed attempt by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to remove a section for road and rail projects that authorizes a higher driver's license renewal fee (by as much as $24), a higher vehicle registration fee (by up to $60) and elections in up to five urban areas to raise the gas tax (by up to 10 cents a gallon).

The House version has no such provision, and a Senate bill creating it passed the Senate earlier this session before dying in the House. Patrick said the provision was unconstitutional and could lead to a veto by Gov. Rick Perry.

With the session ending June 1, representatives and senators will have only a few days to produce a single version and present it to both chambers for final approval.

The bill is based on recommendations of the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative panel that reviews state agencies. In theory, TxDOT could "sunset" — cease to exist — if HB 300 doesn't pass and become law.

The Senate version of the

TxDOT sunset bill would also:

  • Create a "legislative oversight committee," made up of more than 20 members, including House and Senate transportation committee members, to examine TxDOT operations. The House version has six members.
  • Subject TxDOT to sunset review in four years rather than the usual 12. The House version agrees on this point.
  • Retool the Capital Metro board, subject the agency to a sunset-like review and allow the agency to hire fare enforcement officers for its new commuter rail line — provisions in two bills carried by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, that have been threatened by the House standstill in recent days.
  • Prohibit any TxDOT employee from lobbying on state policy, although it maintains the ability of TxDOT to maintain federal lobbyists.
  • Eliminate the Trans-Texas Corridor from state law, which is also in the House bill. Corridor highway projects near Interstate 35 and in East Texas would continue without the name, while the ability to build utility lines and rail lines alongside would cease.

Create a state Department of Motor Vehicles that would handle vehicle titling and registration instead of TxDOT.

Exclude a House provision that would outlaw future red-light camera contracts by cities, while allowing existing red-light cameras to continue catching offenders.

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

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