What was more surprising about the Texas Senate's debate on Tommy Williams' transportation bill -- Bob Duncan's rarely seen appeal of a ruling of the chair? Or Steve Ogden's candid confession that the rancorous debate was all his fault? Never underestimate the ability of a discussion about concrete to bring out the emotional side of Texas legislators.
As we noted in a previous posting, the Senate is fully united in its anger at TxDOT on tolls and the Trans-Texas Corridor, and sharply divided on how to regain control of a state agency on steroids.
Williams' bill -- with a sweeping amendment offered by Transportation Chair John Carona -- represented an urban response to heavy-handedness of the state's highway department in recent years. Rural members, notably Duncan, objected that the bill keeps the door open for cities to pursue comprehensive development agreements (CDAs), which they see as selling public assets to private entities.
Seeing the bill heading for passage, Duncan attempted to add an amendment that sure sounded like good government to me: it prohibited county commissioners from accepting campaign contributions from vendors hoping to ink CDAs. But suspicious minds on the Senate floor considered the amendment an attempt to kill the bill (on the theory that county commissioners would object to the new restriction and rise up against it.) Williams objected on germaneness, Dewhurst agreed and Duncan took the extraordinary step of challenging the chair's ruling.
He had a good argument: the House bill that the Senate was debating was sent over with the language he was proposing, but it was stripped from the bill in committee.
"The matter before us is HB 1892," Duncan said. "It is our right -- we ought to have at least as much say as the committee did to consider the bill."
At this point, Steve Ogden, who also opposed Williams' bill, threw Duncan a life raft: Why don't you withdraw your challenge and try to suspend the rules to allow consideration of your amendment?
At first Duncan refused, but as the debate continued, he saw he had lost the chamber. He withdrew his challenge, and his attempt to suspend Senate rules failed, 24-7.
After the vote, Ogden was moved to make his confession: "This is really my fault," he acknowledged. The debate was occurring because "of the unintended consequences of a bill I authored." (Ogden was the sponsor of the sweeping 2003 legislation permitting TxDOT to pursue public-private partnerships.)
Ogden said he felt the "fix" offered by Williams' bill would simply allow local officials to pursue public-private partnerships, with the same prospects for public corruption, but with no one looking out for statewide transportation needs. "We are ratifying a big mistake," he said.
But Carona noted that as Finance Chair, Ogden oversaw drafting a budget that only balanced because it raided Fund 6 (gas tax revenues). "I don't see how you can be against CDAs and be in favor of diversion (of gas tax revenues)," he said. "Then you have got to be a strong advocate of raising the gas tax." Urban areas, he and Williams noted, are "crying out" for more highway projects.
What will the long term ramifications of today's debate be? Duncan fretted that his challenge would cost him his prestigious assignment as chairman of State Affairs. " I hope I have a committee when this is over," he said. The debate now moves to the budget conference committee, which will consider Ogden-sponsored riders handcuffing CDAs. At this point, Williams must be especially pleased to be a member of the conference committee.
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