Tuesday, May 19, 2009

“What the Senate is doing is exactly what the Sunset Commission said not to do, and that’s tweaking the status quo."

TxDOT off the House spit — for now


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

With the House convening at 10 a.m., the barbeque of the Texas Department of Transportation in the House Transportation Committee has come to an end after almost two highly contentious hours.

House members, bluntly stated, are ticked. Ticked at TxDOT officials, ticked at their Senate brethren, who they claim are merely making cosmetic changes to TxDOT despite several years of bad blood and public unrest, and an interim period that included revelation of a $1.1 billion accounting error.

“What the Senate is doing is exactly what the Sunset Commission said not to do, and that’s tweaking the status quo,” said state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Dallas, a member of the House Transportation Committee.

The committee this morning spent its entire two-hour session grilling Texas Transportation Commission chairwoman Deirdre Delisi and TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz. The subject was House Bill 300, the sunset bill for TxDOT. The House passed it last week with 177 amendments, according to its Senate sponsor. Senators have now proposed another 60 amendments to a new version put forward by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy.

All of those changes are subject to debate, and haggling when a Senate-House conference committee convenes in a few days after the Senate passes the bill. But the crux of the debate is clearly language that state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, put in before HB 300 got to the House floor. It would have TxDOT allocate virtually all of its construction and maintenance money out to almost 50 planning areas around the state.

This would give much more control and power to local leaders. TxDOT, holder of that power now, understandably does not like this much. And the Senate it appears is on board with TxDOT on this, based on the idea that a statewide road system needs a powerful statewide transportation agency. But TxDOT officials also argued that federal law requires it and that the Pickett plan could cost the state federal transportation funds, though they hedged a bit on this legal point last week and again today. And that’s what has House members angry.

Pickett and Saenz spent several testy minutes batting around the question of just what such a requirement might mean.

“Amadeo, you’re still talking in circles,” Pickett said. ” You have tainted this whole plan that the House has put together. You’re masters of the spin, masters of the sky is falling.”

Ultimately, House and Senate conferees will cut out the middle men and women — TxDOT officials — and hash all this out. But what if they can’t? What then? In theory, an agency would cease to exist if not reauthorized by a sunset bill that becomes law.

State Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, co-chair of the sunset review commission that studied TxDOT in the interim between sessions and made numerous recommendations for change, said there is a backup bill that would simply extend TxDOT’s life for two more years and make it subject to another review in the next two years.

“That would be an exceptionally bad idea,” Isett said after the hearing, given that the state Health and Human Services Department is up for sunset review in the next two-year cycle. Spending the sunset staff’s time taking another whack at TxDOT would be difficult.

Pickett isn’t predicting that will occur.

“I want it worked out,” he said. In the hearing, given the seemingly intractable situation and hard feelings, he had a suggestion for how that might be accomplished.

“Maybe we should only hold the conference committee after 5 p.m. with adult beverages,” Pickett said. “We have to find a way to get through this.”

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