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Senate Gridlock

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The Senate debate yesterday on a Florence Shapiro bill governing comprehensive development agreements may serve as a prequel to an issue that could dominate the budget conference committee: TxDOT funding.
While there is a strong consensus on the Senate side that TxDOT needs to be brought to heel, there’s little agreement on just how far the Legislature should go to control the unruly agency.
Shapiro won passage of her bill, which protected regions that undertake toll projects from being penalized with reduced TxDOT funding, but Senate approval came only after a protracted rural/urban fight.
The debate casts into doubt the Senate’s stomach for Steve Ogden’s far-reaching TxDOT riders already in the state budget, which requires LBB oversight of CDA operations.
At the crux of the issue is the state’s anemic funding of highways, dramatized yesterday by Eliot Shapleigh, who released a list of Fund 6 diversions, which now total $2.8 billion. In addition to the usual diversions for the Department of Public Safety, the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Texas Transportation Institute, the proposed budget includes $44 billion for the governor’s border security initiative.
“We need to stop raiding Fund 6. Fund 6 ought to be for the building of our highways,” said Transportation chair John Carona. “I commend Sen. Shapleigh for taking the time to show just how severe the diversions have become.”
In what I took as a jab at Ogden, who opposed Shapiro’s bill, Carona added, “I think it is inappropriate for anyone to argue against CDAs when the budget relies on Fund 6 dollars.”
Meanwhile, the Senate Transportation Committee yesterday approved its massive bill that significantly reins in CDAs by prohibiting non-compete clauses and improving public oversight.
But the committee withdrew an amendment that would have indexed the gas tax to inflation. Carona said he saw no reason to force Senate members to vote on the issue when House chair Mike Krusee has said he can not pass it in his chamber.
“My guess is with the current climate in the House it is not very likely that it(a gas tax) has support over there,” Carona added.
With David Dewhurst’s appointment of Tommy Williams to the Senate budget conference committee, the stage has been set for a rural-urban fight over how to proceed with CDAs.
Ogden’s rider states that expenditures of concession payments from CDAs must first be approved by the LBB. Both Houston and Dallas delegations supported Shapiro’s approach to public-private deals.
The issue, Carona said is that the Legislature should not “cripple public private partnerships when we don’t have any funding alternatives.”
While the urban delegations may succeed in protecting their toll projects this session, the lack of legislative will to fund the gas tax leaves TxDOT with no resources to fund highways in the outlying areas. Shapleigh calls it “the rise of the city-states” since Austin, Houston and Dallas will continue to build roads with tolls. Meanwhile, TxDOT will be too underfunded to keep up with demand for roads betwixt-and-between.
The bottom line: Lawmakers may think Ric Williamson got carried away with privatizing highways, but the scheme at least got the roads built. If they want to second-guess him, they’ll need the intestinal fortitude to come up with more money. Gas tax, anyone?

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