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Road Funding, Veto Override Hit Hurdles in Hearing

With just days left in the special session, the House Appropriations Committee met Tuesday evening to take on two politically tricky tasks.

House Appropriations Committee chairman Jim Pitts, l, R-Waxahachie, and Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, at the early morning meeting on May 17, 2013.

With just days left in the special session, the House Appropriations Committee met Tuesday evening to take on two politically tricky tasks: overriding one of Gov. Rick Perry’s vetoes and finding money for transportation.

Two and a half hours later, both proposals were in danger of falling apart.

House members first discussed Perry’s veto of funding for the Public Integrity Unit, a division of the Travis County district attorney's office tasked with investigating and prosecuting political corruption cases. Last week, Perry cited Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg’s refusal to resign following her recent drunken driving conviction as his reason for defunding the unit.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, filed House Concurrent Resolution 6 to override the governor’s veto — something the Texas Legislature has not done since 1979. The committee did not vote on the resolution, as Turner said he wanted to answer lawmakers’ questions regarding the legality of overriding Perry’s line-item veto during a special session. If it can be done, Turner said, the committee might convene briefly on the House floor on Friday to move the measure forward.

“I believe the votes are there,” Turner said after the hearing. “The goal is to make sure the agency is funded so it can do its job. I’m not interested in making a rhetorical statement.”

Turner stressed that he wasn’t trying to defend Lehmberg’s behavior, though he did question Perry’s decision to tie the funding to her actions.

“That’s a very dangerous precedent, because if any agencies ought to be able to act independently based on the evidence in front of them, it should be prosecutors,” Turner said.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, and several other members of the committee said they were also concerned about the agency’s funding situation and had reservations regarding Perry’s veto.

The head of the unit, Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox, explained to the committee that it has about 425 ongoing cases. Only 23 are “public corruption cases,” he said, while most of the others involve white-collar crimes such as insurance fraud and tax fraud. The cases often involve multiple counties, he said, making it difficult for any public entity but his unit to take them on.

Of the unit’s 425 cases, about half have indictments filed and the other half are active investigations, Cox said.

“A lot of those active investigations may not make it to the next step” without funding, Cox said. The others will likely move forward but may not get handled as well. He said the unit’s staff includes forensic accountants and other people with expertise who are critical to prosecuting those cases.

Lawmakers asked Cox about cases being transferred to other district attorney’s offices around the state. Cox said that may be possible for a few cases but is not an option for investigations the unit is pursuing related to state government corruption, including an ongoing investigation of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

State Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, did not believe the Legislature needed to override Perry’s veto. She predicted Travis County commissioners will find a way to fund the agency for the next two years.

While Turner’s resolution faces potential legal troubles, the leading transportation funding proposal of the special session faces political ones.

The committee voted 23-1 to move Senate Joint Resolution 2 to the House floor, but several members who voted for it made clear they disliked the measure as written and may ultimately oppose it.

SJR 2 would ask voters to approve amending the state constitution to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund.

Several House members complained that the measure, from Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is only projected to raise about a quarter of the $4 billion in additional annual funding the Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs to maintain current congestion.

State Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, asked if SJR 2 was the conservative approach to the state’s transportation revenue shortfall.

“Are you a conservative by stockpiling money in the bank, or are you a conservative when you take care of the absolute basic infrastructure in the state of Texas so we don’t pass crumbing roads to our children and our grandchildren?” Crownover said.

Other lawmakers complained about language added to the measure at the insistence of state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, that would prevent revenue being diverted to the highway fund in years when the Rainy Day Fund’s balance is below $6 billion. Both Democrats and Republicans questioned whether the number was too high and worried that it would create a de-facto “floor” in the Rainy Day Fund. Any future spending that would cause the fund’s balance to dip below $6 billion would become politically tougher, some warned.

“If that $6 billion stays in, we’re going to have a competition every session” between transportation and other priorities, said state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, asked SJR 2’s House sponsor, state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, where the $6 billion figure came from.

“It was Senate magic,” Phillips joked. He then explained it was the threshold that was needed to get the bill approved by the Senate.

Some Republicans argued that the threshold should be a percentage of state spending rather than a specific number, especially if the language was to go into the state constitution.

Phillips didn’t disagree with the complaints  but said he was wary of changing the measure considering the “precious time that we have left in the session.” Any changes increases the chances that the measure will die before the special session ends, he said.

“It’s all we have before us,” Howard said reluctantly. “It’s all we seem to be able to deal with.”

Carter was the single "no" vote on moving the measure forward.

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