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House Gives Early OK to TxDOT Sunset Bill

Consider it a do-over. The House today tentatively approved the Texas Department of Transportation Sunset bill, the measure that last year sent lawmakers into a surprise special session.

State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (l), R-Irving, discusses TXDOT sunset legislation with State Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, at the Texas House on April 29, 2011.

Consider it a do-over. The House today tentatively approved the Texas Department of Transportation Sunset bill, the measure that last year sent lawmakers into a surprise special session.

This time, though, much of the controversy over toll roads, the Trans-Texas Corridor and local option gas taxes has dissipated. Though there were more than 200 pages of amendments, debate over the bill was less heated than in 2009. The major components of the TxDOT bill this year — mostly items recommended by the Sunset Advisory Commission — include requiring a 20-year statewide transportation plan, creating an inspector general's office in the department, and hiring a chief financial officer to oversee finances at TxDOT.

When the sun sets on a state agency, it will shut down unless the Legislature passes a bill to renew its functions. The oversight process gives legislators an opportunity to consider recommendations made by the commission, and change the way an agency works. A Sunset bill like TxDOT’s must pass — eventually — or the agency goes away.

Two years ago, legislators put TxDOT in jeopardy when the House and Senate sparred over whether local governments should be able to hold elections and allow voters to decide whether to increase gas taxes for transportation funding. The Senate wanted the measure. The House hated it. And on the final day of the legislative session, the House adjourned in protest without approving the TxDOT sunset bill. That triggered a special legislative session to pass a bare-bones Sunset bill that allowed TxDOT to continue its operations. 

The bill in the House today is a true Sunset bill that addresses the oversight and administration of the agency. And though there was less angst over the measure this year, lawmakers in the House were still a little leery, taking opportunities to make known that they want nothing to do with the much-maligned and since-abandoned Trans-Texas Corridor. That plan, championed in 2002 by Gov. Rick Perry and the late former TxDOT chairman Ric Williamson, would have created a 4,000-mile network of highways, rail and utility lines. It was to be funded by private investors and built and expanded as demand warranted. The plan generated stiff public resistance, and even Perry gave up the idea. 

“I am not reviving it in any way shape or form," state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, author of the TxDOT bill, assured the chamber. "I have no desire to revive the Trans-Texas Corridor.”

Lingering distrust of TxDOT that has permeated past transportation debates showed through today in some of the amendments adopted on the floor. 

By striking two words — "and programs" — an amendment by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would prevent TxDOT from lobbying support from the federal government for projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor in the future. Kolkhorst reminded legislators of their previous conflict with TxDOT: “We were trying to, as a body, debate whether or not the Trans-Texas Corridor was something that we wanted to do… but at the same time we were getting push from DC,” because of efforts by TxDOT to rally support. 

Afraid the amendment might prevent TxDOT from lobbying the federal government for programs like bridge restoration and other necessary activities, Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, suggested the language of the amendment, which passed, be reviewed in conference. “I’m not against what you’re trying to do, I just want to make sure we don’t tie their hands with the nomenclature that we use,” said Phillips.

Distrust for toll road authorities also influenced debate on the floor. State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, offered an amendment, which representatives adopted, prohibiting TxDOT from "promoting or advocating for the benefits of toll roads" in order to sway public opinion. And Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, brought attention to the North Texas Tollway Authority, which he says is fighting his efforts to include toll road authorities in the Sunset review process.  “If you have nothing to hide, why would you be concerned about a little transparency?” asked Anchia. 

As a compromise, representatives adopted an amendment by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, which would allow the North Texas Tollway Authority to be reviewed either by a state auditor or under the Sunset review process, without fear of being abolished. 

McClendon also offered a suggestion on how to change up TxDOT's five-member, governor-appointed commission. Her amendment was tabled, but it would have allowed voters statewide to choose one elected commissioner. Instead, representatives opted to adopt less severe changes to the appointment process offered by Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. “It’s really still four governor appointments out of five,” said Pickett, but one would be selected by the governor from a list of choices picked by the Speaker of the House. The lieutenant governor of the Senate would pick the fifth member.

Past strife caused suspicion of some amendments, too, even when representatives said they had nothing to do with the Trans-Texas Corridor. Phillips and Pickett pushed for an amendment to extend the authority of TxDOT to do design-build projects — i.e. simultaneously design and build a project without needing separate contracts — which they say saves time and money for communities. “[TxDOT has] shown that it’s worked and we’re going to extend that,” said Phillips, “but we’re going to put some fences. We’re going to put some restrictions,” to ensure projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor won’t be possible. 

But at the end of the day, some representatives called it hypocritical when others used the bill to tack on provisions for specific tollway projects. Phillips said such projects would “allow [communities] locally to deal with their congestion relief.” 

“It saddens me that we would not be more serious about something everyone says is so critical,” said Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, asking representatives not to vote for Phillips' amendment, which originally included five tollway projects, but was amended by others to include even more. 

Since the Legislature isn’t going to appropriate more dollars for transportation or raise the gas tax, “we have to be mindful of limitations and allow the local folks to do it,” said Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, in support of Phillips' amendment. That means allowing local communities to involve the private sector, he said.

“This is not how we want to build all of our projects in this state,” said Phillips, but he said the communities affected by his amendment showed support for the projects in public testimony. 

Current disasters — like the ongoing blaze of wildfires in West Texas — were also brought into the debate. The House adopted an amendment from Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, which would require the agency to determine escape routes for people in times of natural disasters, like wildfires or hurricanes. 

Even though no such program exists, the House adopted safety standards for a high-speed rail program, too. “There’s no money for the state to pay for high speed rail,” said Phillips, author of the amendment. But 72 representatives voted to pass the measure, just in case.

The process will start all over in 2015, TxDOT's new Sunset expiration date.   

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