July 6, 2009

In spotlight, toll roads too hot to handle

During special session, it's safety first for lawmakers.

by Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman

It's intriguing how a spotlight can change a politician's perspective. Or in the case of the special session just past, a whole bunch of politicians' perspectives.

Way back in the spring of 2009 (OK, about three months ago), the Texas Senate overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 404 and Senate Bill 17. The House Transportation Committee later passed both bills. And the Senate even passed them again, this time while they were taking a ride on the Texas Department of Transportation sunset bill that later died.

In fact, all of these bills died in the House late in the session. But it had nothing to do with the content of SB 404 and SB 17, which occasioned little debate during the regular session.

Then, last week, members of the House and Senate turned their noses up at both bills and declined to even vote on them.

To refresh your memory, SB 404 would have extended by several years the authority of TxDOT and regional mobility authorities to sign long-term toll road leases with private companies. Its companion bill, SB 17, would have mandated that such contracts protect the state's and residents' interests by making it easier to build nearby free roads and setting prices now for the state to buy back a private toll road if it ever wanted to.

Those two bills were combined, for the special session, into a single bill. Neither could get a vote in the House Transportation Committee or the Senate Finance Committee. The House Transportation Committee chairman, Joseph Pickett of El Paso, said members did not consider it a "safe vote." Meaning, it was a vote that could turn a legislator into a former legislator.

Remember, this same committee voted for the same changes to the law about seven weeks ago.

Why was it a safe vote in May and a dangerous vote in July?

Back then there were thousands of bills up for consideration, and thus the attention of the public and the press was fragmented. Transportation insiders, anti-toll activists and the few transportation writers for major dailies were paying attention to this. But most people weren't.

Now, with only three subjects on the special session call, and no controversy on two of them, that left the entire focus on this one bill. On legislators voting to allow private toll roads, potentially operated by (and sending profits eventually to) foreign companies like Spanish toll road builder Cintra. On lawmakers in effect undoing a moratorium on most such contracts that they voted for in 2007.

So, why not just bring it up and vote against it? Well, that could then be used against lawmakers later by an opponent saying they'd voted against badly needed roads. And it would be a vote against Gov. Rick Perry, who wanted to extend the authority for private toll roads. A vote against Perry, who has enthusiastically wielded his veto pen through the years.

Of course, presumably somewhere amid all this there is the "right" position to take on this issue — even if what is deemed right might vary from lawmaker to lawmaker — rather than the "safe" position. But Jefferson Smith went to Washington, not Austin.

And he was a fictional character.

© 2009 Austin American-Statesman: www.statesman.com

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