Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"The borrow & spend policies of Rick Perry have plunged Texas into unsustainable debt...$12 billion in debt, not counting local debt for toll roads."

New year, new opportunities


Terri Hall

Reflections first...

The year started with the 81st session of the Texas Legislature, often more frenzied and confusing than even highly trained political veterans can cover. So for the grassroots who attempt to watchdog their elected officials while juggling work, family, and daily life, it's quite a hill to climb. But it's a necessary one, one that TURF and its citizen volunteers continue to do in order to protect our freedoms and prevent a total fleecing of the taxpayers, particularly through runaway toll taxes, the most expensive way to fund roads.

With hundreds of transportation bills to follow, this year, the big kahuna was the TxDOT sunset bill. Certain state agencies undergo sunset review every 12 years with the goal of evaluating whether or not we still need the agency, and if so, to get rid of any waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement in order to streamline them and make our state agencies more efficient and effective.

Clearly, TxDOT is an agency rife with all of the above and needs a total house cleaning (read about its $1.1 billion "accounting error" here). The trouble during the session was getting agreement on how to repair it, with the looming elephant in the room always turning to funding - cries of shortfalls, Rick Perry insisting on massive toll road proliferation and hawking our public roads to the highest bidder for quick cash, others claiming we need local tax hikes, and still others pushing for a statewide gas tax hike. Many lawmakers think if we just give TxDOT more money, all their troubles will simply fade away. Hogwash! Just demonstrates the mentality of career politicians who think you solve everything by throwing more money at it.

What fell by the wayside during this political theater was genuine reform of the agency, an audit of TxDOT's books, accountability for the agency's misdeeds, and ending diversions to the gas tax that have habitually raided our transportation dollars for things that don't relate to transportation. Lawmakers fail to grasp that taxpayers will never buy into tax hikes for an agency this broken, who seems to take great pleasure in abusing taxpayers' money, angering the traveling public, railroading unwanted toll roads down Texans' throats (including breaking the law to push its toll agenda, read more here), and overall being tone deaf to the taxpayers who pay their bills.

By the end of the session, legislators loaded-up the sunset bill with just about every transportation bill that went nowhere, and bloated the legislation to over 1,200 pages, which no one had time to read much less digest. In the end, both the sunset bill and the safety net bill (designed to simply continue the agency if the sunset bill didn't pass) failed to pass, largely due to Senator John Carona who threatened to filibuster the sunset bill over its lack of a local option gas tax. So for a few weeks, TxDOT was legally abolished. Needless to say, I didn't cry any crocodile tears over it, even if it was only temporary bliss.

An unsung victory of the regular session was the legislature's failure to re-authorize certain contracts called Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) that effectively sell-off our Texas roads to private corporations in 52 year, monopolistic sweetheart deals. So, Governor Perry called a special session to get a continuation bill passed and to get these CDAs re-authorized, priority number one for Perry in order benefit his cronies in the industry, including firms like UBS where Perry's son, Griffin, is employed, which also happens to be a bidder on the Trans Texas Corridor TTC-69 project that's still alive and well.

With legislators entire focus now on CDAs, without the distraction of 7,000 other bills during the regular session, the grassroots went to work educating members on the horrific anti-taxpayer provisions in these contracts that essentially socialize the losses and privatize the profits. A separate bill pushed by Perry would have raided teacher retirement and public employee retirement funds to finance these risky toll deals, which sent many lawmakers over the edge. Ultimately, this two-day session ended with the CDA bill lacking the votes to even get out of committee! This is our biggest victory to date, for without these deals, most of the planned toll roads will face certain death for lack of financing.

Locally, despite a new Mayor and several new councilmembers being appointed to the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO, local board set-up by federal law for regional transportation planning and to allocate transportation dollars to local projects), the board just approved a long-range plan with 57 toll projects for San Antonio alone. Most communities around the state are in the same boat under a total toll road assault thanks to Perry's policies.

Hope on the Horizon

Many key lawmakers are sounding the drumbeat to end the reliance on tolling as a means to finance roads. Not only is there massive blowback from the traveling public, the state has maxed out its credit card using the borrow and spend policies of Perry that have plunged our state into unsustainable debt (zero debt for roads pre-Perry, under Perry, now $12 BILLION in debt for roads, not counting the local debt for toll roads).

Just this week, the North Texas Toll Authority voiced its concerns about the growing public outcry against the massive number of toll roads being planned in already toll road heavy DFW, citing the public's willingness to pay the tolls as key to paying back the debt. Carona has called a special public hearing February 1 at the Capitol Auditorium in Austin to address road financing with an eye to alternatives to tolling.

In the Governor's race, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina are mounting an offensive against Perry's toll road policies and mismanagement of TxDOT as centerpieces to their campaigns to unseat Perry. The jury's still out on the Democratic ticket with former Houston Mayor Bill White only recently emerging as the candidate for Governor.

In the Legislature, two pro-toll state representatives won't be returning, Carl Isett (Lubbock) and Frank Corte (San Antonio) and one pro-toll state senator, Eliot Shapleigh (El Paso). It's up to the voters to ensure the right people fill those positions.

With anti-toll Lyle Larson running to replace Corte, this could FINALLY put the nail in the coffin for tolling existing freeways 281 and 1604 in that district. All this time, the number one roadblock to KILLING the toll plans for 281 and 1604 is due to the failure of the elected representatives in those corridors, Frank Corte and Jeff Wentworth, to represent the will of the people and stop the freeway to tollway conversions. No matter how loudly the public objects, if your politicians acquiesce, TxDOT and the toll authority (RMA) have all the political cover they need to toll these roads anyway.

Throw the bums out election?

With all the political dissatisfaction and economic woes locally and nationally, 2010 could be a transformational year in politics. Many ordinary citizens who have been apathetic or sitting on the sidelines are becoming politically informed and involved for the first time, some are even running for office. This year could be one of the biggest anti-incumbent, throw the bums out elections in a generation.

Many faithful citizen advocates have been waiting a LONG time to get accountability at the ballot box for their representatives ignoring the public outcry against tolling our existing freeways, the Trans Texas Corridor, and the sale of our Texas roads to foreign companies who then charge 75 cents PER MILE to drive our PUBLIC roads.

Sign-up to be a precinct chair by Monday!

So our attention will turn to providing citizens with our TURF Voter Guide to help inform voters where candidates stand on toll and transportation issues. One thing folks can do immediately is file to become your precinct chair (info/applications available on your local party's county web site). The deadline to file is Monday, January 4. Precinct chairs oversee that precinct's elections as well as the precinct convention that ultimately sets your Party's platform at the state convention next summer. TURF already has several sample resolutions available that can be introduced at your precinct conventions that address these issues.

In 2010 in particular, knowledge and taking action is power. So get informed or get run over. Our next meeting is January 21 at 6:00 PM at BigZ Burgers off 1604 (near Huebner). See you there.

Together, we can get it done!

© 2009

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