Say you are the chairman of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee and you are convinced the Trans Texas Corridor is a “huge mistake.” You’ve got overwhelming Senate support for a bill imposing a moratorium on the massive project, but a House chairman guaranteed to kill the bill without mercy. Not to mention a governor eager to use his veto pen. And, just to keep this (okay, not-so-fictitious) drama interesting, the Transportation Commission’s chairman until recently wouldn’t even return your phone calls. What do you do?
“When you don’t have any leverage…you try to create leverage,” said Sen. John Carona, the hapless hero of our story.
That would explain a constitutional amendment soon to be filed by Sen. Glenn Hegar, which proposes to significantly expand the powers of the Texas Senate regarding gubernatorial appointments. TxDOT critics have been frustrated by their inability to take on Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson, whose term of office recently expired. Gov. Rick Perry has yet to re-appoint Williamson, the TTC’s mastermind, knowing he would face a doomed confirmation fight while the Leigslature is in session. If Perry dallies until lawmakers leave town at the end of May, Williamson won’t have to face his opponents in the Senate.
Hegar’s constitutional amendment would require appointees to immediately leave office when their term expires, until they are reappointed by the governor. If the Legislature is not in session, the lieutenant governor would have the right to convene the 31 lawmakers to debate and vote on a confirmation. And, it would allow the Senate — by a two-thirds vote — to revoke a gubernatorial appointment.
“It rests more authority with the Senate,” Hegar explained. “It’s more checks and balances.”
Is this amendment aimed at Williamson? “Whether it is TYC or TxDOT, there’s been a lot of controversy coming into play.” If an appointee is not doing a good job, Hegar told me, “we should be able to go back in and potentially remove that person.”
Certainly Carona has made clear his feelings about Williamson, having publicly called for his resignation. But, he insisted that he was not engaging in a personal vendetta. “Ric Williamson had an obnoxious personality when he was in the House and little had changed since then,” he said. But the real problem, he told me, is that the Legislature gave the Transportation Commission “entirely too much responsiblity” in bills passed during the last two sessions.
His two big beefs are: the scope of the TTC is unnecessary and the financing is a disguised tax. Drivers will be charged tolls not just for the privilege of using a road, but an extra amount to help fund other road projects.
“We all voted for this stuff. It was late in the session…and we were duped,” Carona said. “In fairness to the Transportation Commission, the Legislature hasn’t given them options” like indexing the fuels tax to transportation construction costs.
Meanwhile, Carona planned to meet with House Transportation chairman Mike Krusee and Williamson to “try to negotiate a middle ground,” like calling for complete sunset review of TxDOT, including its authority to proceed with toll projects, inthe ’09 session.
In the Senate, there has been grumbling about zeroing-out the agency in the appropriations bill.
The TxDOT standoff is emblemmatic of the power struggle that has simmered continuously in the Perry-Craddick-Dewhurst era. As long as Perry and Craddick are so strongly allied, Dewhurst and the Senate will be short on leverage.
But mounting public opposition could force a vote in the House, where Rep. Lois Kolkhorst will carry the referendum bill. Lawmakers are feeling enormous heat from constituents. According to Carona, 1,000 corridor opponents signed in at his hearing at the Capitol last week. (Note to Williamson: You might want to consider a DPS escort. Those folks were angry.) If the moratorium makes it to the House floor, there may be a second insurrenction this session — one that Craddick won’t win.