Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"it's a complete disappointment and a waste of taxpayer money at this point."

Lawmakers suggest slew of changes to state agencies

Sunset commission also urges the merger of youth organizations.


By Jeorge Zarazua
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2011

A panel of Texas lawmakers issued final sunset reviews Wednesday for nine state agencies, recommending that the five-member Texas Transportation Commission be abolished and that the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission merge, among a slew of other changes.

The 12-member Sunset Advisory Commission also voted to change the name of the Texas Railroad Commission to the Texas Oil and Gas Commission, and said it should be headed by a single elected commissioner instead of the three who now govern it.

The name change would better reflect the agency's duties as regulator of the state's oil and gas industry, Sunset staff concluded.

Early reaction from the industry was favorable. Houston-based oil and gas exploration company Apache Corp. supported the idea of five part-time commissioners, but one elected commissioner “is fine, too,” said Obie O'Brien, Apache's vice president of government and regulatory affairs.

“That takes some of the politics out of it,” he said.

The panel rejected Rep. Rafael Anchia's recommendation that a single elected commissioner replace the three-member appointed board overseeing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Anchia, D-Dallas, said an elected commissioner would be more responsive to voters, but the sunset panel voted 10-2 against it.

The panel did back changes in enforcement policies at the TCEQ, including higher penalty caps for polluters. The proposed limit would go from $10,000 per violation per day to $25,000 — a move opposed by the Texas Association of Manufacturers and other trade groups.

Environmentalists said the higher penalty caps would help the agency to deter excessive pollution. Still, they said the sunset panel didn't go far enough with the agency, which is seen as too cozy with the industries it regulates.

All of the sunset panel's recommendations will be drafted into legislation for both the House and Senate to consider adopting into law.

Terri Hall, a San Antonio activist and founder of Texans United for Reform and Freedom, said the panel's 7-5 vote to recommend replacing the Transportation Commission with a single appointed commissioner of transportation wouldn't fix the beleaguered agency.

“To us, it's a complete disappointment and a waste of taxpayer money at this point,” said Hall, whose organization called for elected TxDOT leadership. “We're going to fight it all the way to the end to get what we, the people, have been asking for.”

Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, said a five-member Transportation Commission has worked for the state, but that the governor welcomes the work of the sunset panel, tasked with eliminating waste, duplication, and inefficiency in government agencies.

“We're facing a number of challenges this session, everybody knows,” Cesinger said, referring to drastic cuts lawmakers must make to meet a projected $27 million state budget deficit.

Public distrust of TxDOT has flared as a result of its handling of toll roads and public-private partnerships, including the failed Trans Texas Corridor.

The Transportation Commission's own TxDOT Restructure Council concluded last week that immediate changes were needed to the agency's top management for it to improve.

“I think the ultimate problem with TxDOT is that there is not a direct point of responsibility,” said Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the Sunset Advisory Commission's vice-chairman. “When you have three or five commissioners, there is always someone else to say, ‘If they get on board and work with me, I can get this done the way you want.' That's why I greatly support having one appointed by the governor.”

There was no immediate reaction from Transportation Commission members or TxDOT's executive director Amadeo Saenz Jr. on the sunset vote.

The sunset panel did, however, vote unanimously to merge the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission into a new agency, which would be called the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Combining TYC and the probation commission would save the state nearly $600,000 by eliminating duplicative director-level positions.

“This is an excellent opportunity for this legislature to create a model agency ... (and) also be fiscally responsible,” state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said. “The timing could not be better.”

Staff Writer Vicki Vaughan and Houston Chronicle Staff Writer Matt Tresaugue contributed to this report.

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