Thursday, July 02, 2009

"Sometimes the writing is on the wall, and I'm just not confident we have the support."


Road bond, sunset bills nearing quick passage

But private toll road bill appears to lack support.


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

Legislators, many of them tanned and exhibiting a relaxed, schools-out air Wednesday, ripped quickly through two of the three issues that Gov. Rick Perry put on their special session plate.

Leaders were predicting final passage by this afternoon of a bill that would keep alive for two more years several state agencies, including the Texas Department of Transportation, and of a second piece of legislation allowing the state to issue $2 billion in transportation bonds.

However, prospects appear dim for a third bill that would extend authority for private companies to finance, build and profit from tollways on government land. The bill, which would put legislators in the uncomfortable position of making a clear, stand-alone vote in favor of private toll roads, was left pending in committees in the House and the Senate.

Although some legislative leaders strove to paint the bill as still breathing late in the day, the chairmen of both committees said flatly that a majority of lawmakers are not on board.

"This issue is controversial, and right now we don't have the votes," said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, Senate Finance Committee chairman. "I think we pass the bills that are essential — (Senate Bill) 1 and (Senate Bill) 2. (Senate Bill) 3 is optional."

"Sometimes the writing is on the wall, and I'm just not confident we have the support," said House Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Joseph Pickett, D-El Paso. "Do members understand it? What is a safe vote for the members? For a lot of them, a safe vote is 'no.' "

Pickett said the legislation might have a chance if lawmakers were to hang around for most of the 30 days allowed for a special session. But most legislators appear eager to return to their regularly scheduled summer as soon as possible.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, put out mixed signals late in the day about the private toll road bill. He told reporters minutes after the Senate adjourned for the day at midafternoon that a deal is in the works to continue approval for a limited number of private toll road projects.

Three or four such projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are at an advanced stage of development, officials said, and could proceed during the next year or so if the Legislature were to extend authority for such contracts beyond the Sept. 1 expiration date in current law.

Dewhurst said he was about to meet with House Speaker Joe Straus to discuss all three issues Perry put on the special session agenda, known as the "call." Under the Texas Constitution, only the governor can call a special session, and only he can set its agenda.

But Dewhurst, asked after his meeting with Straus about the private toll road issue, said that he and the House speaker had discussed only the scheduling of how to complete action on the transportation bond and agency sunset issues.

All three items on Perry's call for the special session are unfinished business KO'd late in the regular, 140-day session when House Democrats, trying to kill a Republican-backed voter identification bill, stalled action for five days.

Senate Bill 2, passed by the Senate and, as House Bill 2, also approved by a House committee Wednesday, would keep TxDOT, the Texas Department of Insurance, the Texas Racing Commission and several smaller agencies from ceasing to exist under the Texas sunset law.It requires state agencies to undergo an intense review every dozen years; they can continue operating only if the Legislature votes to do so.

Several sunset bills, in the case of TxDOT running to several hundreds of pages after other bills were attached to it, died late in the regular session. A "safety net" sunset bill similar to one now before the Legislature also died in the regular session's final minutes.

Without some sort of action now, those agencies would disappear in September 2010.

The transportation bond legislation, which had widespread support in the regular session, had taken a ride on the TxDOT sunset bill and thus died along with it.

Voters in 2007 had authorized TxDOT to issue up to $5 billion in bonds that would be paid back with general state revenue, rather than gasoline taxes. This legislation would allow the state to borrow the first $2 billion and use half of it to set up a "revolving" fund to loan money to local governments for transportation projects.

TxDOT would spend the other $1 billion, an infusion of cash that has become more critical as available money from both the state and federal gas tax ebbs.

As for private toll roads, a bill extending that authority for four more years passed the full Senate and a House committee during the session, as did a companion bill setting contractual limits designed to protect the state's financial interest. The bill now under consideration, and under siege, is a combination of those two bills.

For supporters of such contracts, which were touted earlier this decade as a way to bring in large upfront payments to TxDOT from private companies, the issue is not so much the next two years. Rather, if the existing authority in state law expires, reviving it may be politically impossible.

"It means the potential loss of billions of dollars for road construction," said former state Rep. Mike Krusee, a Williamson County Republican who carried the original 2003 legislation making such contracts possible. "If the economy were strong, and there's plenty of jobs around, and no congestion, that might be OK. But that's not the case.", 445-3698

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