Wanted: adult supervision
Sat May 9, 2009 11:35 am

The House was out of control Thursday during the debate on the TxDOT Sunset bill. The process was living proof of the old saying that there are two things you should never see being made: sausage and legislation. This was not serious lawmaking. It was an orgy–an orgy of hatred for TxDOT. Why bother to offer amendments at all? Why not just make personal privilege speeches that say, “I hate TxDOT worse than you do.” “No, I hate TxDOT worse than you ever dreamed of hating them.” Then vote for the person who hates TxDOT the most and let him or her write the bill.

The Republicans got so caught up in the frenzy that they voted for a governance scheme that included a statewide elected chairman. Overcome by their own blood lust, they didn’t stop to think that the reason the Democrats were pushing it was that they have a fighting chance to win a statewide office that has no incumbent. Phil King got it. He pointed out that the plan would have to go through preclearance with the Justice Department. That didn’t slow anybody down.

The governing proposal that carried the day was the Leibowitz amendment. It called for 15 commissioners, with one elected statewide and the others to be elected from the 14 Court of Appeals districts. Did anybody realize that this “reform” gives Houston two commissioners, one from the first district, one from the fourteenth? Otto, in opposition, pointed out that commissioners will be beholden to the population centers in their districts. The rural counties don’t have enough population to form districts of their own, so they will inevitably be attached to urban counties. Otto said Liberty County, in his district, will be swallowed up by Houston. Actually, Liberty County is in the 9th Court of Appeals district, so it will be swallowed up by Jefferson County. The outcome, for Liberty County, is the same: the roads will be built in Jefferson County. For the umpteenth time, I was reminded that Texas politics is less about R versus D than it is about rural versus urban. For most of Texas history, the rurals prevailed, but from this point forward–and especially after the 2011 redistricting–the urbans are going win.

The serious issue here is whether the Sunset process is working. Back in 1991, the state’s leadership–Richards, Bullock, Laney–talked about getting rid of it because Sunset bills were a Christmas tree for the lobby. I wrote a column for the magazine in disagreement. I wrote then that it is healthy for every issue to have a chance to be debated once during a twelve-year cycle. After watching the TxDOT debate, I’m not so sure about my position. The bill that will go to the Senate is unworkable. The process completely disintegrated late at night. Facing the possibility that the debate might proceed into the Mother’s Day weekend, Gallego moved to accept all amendments and all amendments to the amendments, and then keep the journal open until Monday at 5 p.m. so that members could register their votes against any of the amendments they didn’t like; provided that the negative votes could not reverse the result of the amendments having been accepted. This was the WURST process imaginable, and the House wouldn’t go for it. For better or for worse, every member with an amendment got his chance.

The result is that the House has basically defaulted to the Senate. The House bill is a complete mess. All the TxDOT haters accomplished was to snarl up the bill to the point where the House position, to the extent that there is any, is impossible to defend in conference committee.

* * * *

After I posted this item, I received an e-mail from a person who is very familiar with TxDOT’s problems, political and practical. The e-mail made the following points:

1. Aside from the Trans-Texas Corridor issue, the frustration members feel toward TxDOT is that the agency doesn’t deliver the projects they want.

2. Both chambers passed budgets that don’t meet TxDOT’s current obligations. The agency says that money for new construction will run out by 2012.

3. Both chambers have passed bills to increase diversions from gas tax revenue.

4. Although TxDOT officials have stated repeatedly that gas tax revenue is declining, the Legislature has done nothing (except authorize bonds, which means borrowing money) to seek new revenue.

The stalemate on this is political. The way to break it is to raise motor fuels taxes, issue bonds based on the revenue, and index the tax to inflation, with a cap on the increase. The governor could break the impasse by coming out for a gasoline tax increase. He’s not going to do it. The governor and the agency continue to press for comprehensive development agreements for toll roads as the funding solution. The Legislature and the public hate the idea of privatizing highways. They are not going to give in to the pressure for more toll roads, especially if it means privatization. This leads to the final point in the e-mail:

5. At this rate, it doesn’t matter what they do in Sunset, without the money to fund the system, it really doesn’t matter.

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