Monday, June 01, 2009

"Without a safety net, agencies go out of business. That could mean a special session."

TxDOT overhaul bill could be dead


By Ben Wear, Mike Ward and Corrie MacLaggan
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

In a chaotic display, the Texas House adjourned at midnight Sunday without approving a massive bill to overhaul the Texas Department of Transportation or a safety-net measure to keep the agency operating.

Failure to approve the safety net also means that at least three other state agencies could go out of business: the Texas Racing Commission, the Texas Department of Insurance and the Affordable Housing Commission.

"We have to pass a safety net," said state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who had threatened to filibuster the TxDOT sunset bill in the Senate because it did not contain a local-option fuel surcharge to fund transportation projects.

"Without a safety net, agencies go out of business. That could mean a special session."

House leaders suggested that a special session on a safety-net bill was a likely option, if the House cannot suspend its rules today to make another attempt to pass House Bill 1959.

The safety-net bill passed the Senate earlier in the evening.

House Speaker Joe Straus said that he would assume that there's a risk of a special session but said that's the governor's call. He said he wasn't expecting the House to adjourn without passing the safety-net bill and that there "may be some options on the table."

"What's a little chaos before we go home?" Straus asked.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said that pending bills such as the expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program still stand a chance.

"Nothing's dead" until the session is over, Coleman said.

Just before midnight Sunday, the deadline for the House to pass bills, House members were locked in a parliamentary tussle over another bill. An attempt for a vote on the safety net was delayed, then died after the deadline passed. An attempt to extend the deadline failed. Then, the House adjourned.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate ran through a series of final votes, generally with little debate, on dozens of other bills that had passed both houses previously and then had differences reconciled by House-Senate conference committees. Reflecting the exhaustion of 139 days engaged in the effort of making laws, both bodies waited until midday to begin that effort and then took a leisurely pace.

Carona began the day with a thunderclap, issuing a press release with the provocative headline, "Why I will filibuster the TxDOT sunset bill."

He went on at great length about what he regarded as the "bad faith" involved in the final negotiations, twice turning to his ancestral language to make points.

"There is an old Italian saying: Dai nemici mi guardo io, dagli amici miguardi Iddio," Carona said in the release. "It means 'I can protect myself from my enemies; may God protect me from my friends!'"

The friend in this case is state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, the Senate sponsor of HB 300 and vice chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission. Hegar had worked closely with Carona, who chairs the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, and other senators on the sunset bill when it arrived from the House.

That included sifting through 67 suggested Senate amendments and putting 33 of them on the bill. Among those was the "local option transportation act" by Carona, which had been a separate bill that passed the Senate but died in the House.

The local option transportation measure, in its final form, would have allowed county commissioners in metro areas to call elections and ask voters to either create a local gas tax or raise two existing fees for transportation projects.

Dallas-Fort Worth leaders have pushed for such a measure for years, hoping to use it to expand commuter rail. Other cities, with transportation needs of their own that TxDOT increasingly is having trouble getting to, picked up on the concept, and the measure was broadened to include them.

But some House members, abetted by conservative groups that opposed the Carona measure, made sure the House version of HB 300 did not have the local option and said they would not allow it into the final accord.

Carona charged that Hegar, who had voted against the local option measure on the Senate floor, in effect became an ally of the House on the measure and excluded Carona from conference committee deliberations.

Not so, Hegar said Sunday.

He and the other senators who sided with the House did so, Hegar said, because they were convinced that the House would vote down the TxDOT sunset bill otherwise.

Hegar, sticking with English in an answering press release Sunday, said he was disappointed by Carona's "harsh attacks" and "distortions" that were "patently false."

House Bill 300 is currently 344 pages long. If it dies:

• The Trans-Texas Corridor would remain legal under Texas law. However, the private toll road contracts that are at the heart of it would cease to be legal in September. State law carries some exceptions that would allow such contracts on some projects until 2011.

• New controls on private tollway contracts would not go into effect. Those controls would make it illegal to limit state improvements on nearby free highways.

• A plan to create a new Department of Motor Vehicles would fall away.

• A new law allowing the state to borrow up to $5 billion under Proposition 12, approved by voters in 2007, would die. The state had planned to borrow $2 billion of that during the next two years and much of that in the second year. Carona contended that elimination of HB 300 will delay projects about half a year, assuming that the next Legislature approves the necessary changes in state law.; 445-3698; 445-1712

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