Regional News

TxDOT, $2 Billion Issue in Limbo as Legislature Ends Its Regular Session

DALLAS - The state Legislature's failure to approve $2 billion of bonds for the Texas Department of Transportation and uncertainty over the agency's future could force Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session, lawmakers said yesterday.

The 2009 session closed with no authorization for TxDOT or several other agencies to continue operating beyond Sept. 1. Without new sunset legislation, the agencies would have a year to end operations. However, the Legislature does not meet again until 2011.

Perry said yesterday that the agencies would "continue to serve the public as we choose the best of many options that are out in front of us."

"This is not a big hurdle for the Texas Legislature to deal with," the Republican governor told a press conference. "If we have to come back into session to deal with this, that's what we'll do. We'll find a solution to keeping government running."

House members sought to prevent the shutdowns through the controversial use of a joint resolution on Monday "correcting" the agencies' existing expiration date from 2009 to 2011. Under the rules, the House and Senate could only approve corrections to bills passed earlier in the session.

In the Senate, the resolution to extend the date of the agencies' expiration snagged on the lack of authorization for TxDOT to issue $2 billion of bonds, part of $5 billion approved by voters in 2007 under Proposition 12. As the Senate was struggling to solve that problem, the House abruptly adjourned without notifying the Senate. The adjournment came six hours before the official deadline.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, called the conclusion a "disaster" and warned that TxDOT's budget is "wrecked" without the bond funding.

Ogden said that Perry must call a short special session to keep the agencies operating while maintaining the bond funding.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who completed his first term as speaker of the chamber narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats, called the session a "strong success," despite the failure to pass the transportation bill or the agency safety net.

Despite the apparent crisis, Perry and Lieut. Gov. David Dewhurst also said they were quite pleased with the session's outcome. But Dewhurst expressed disappointment at the failure to pass a voter identification law and a measure designed to discourage abortions. The voter ID law, which Democrats called the Voter Suppression Act, was the target of a parliamentary slowdown in the House that prevented votes on hundreds of bills.

The biggest bill to fail was HB 300, one of the longest in Texas history and known as the TxDOT Sunset Bill. The bill revamped the department and authorized its continued existence under the state's sunset law. It also contained authorization for $2 billion of road bonds and included more than 100 amendments, including a provision for a local option tax to fund regional transportation projects.

Although both the Senate and House had passed versions of HB 300, the version to emerge from a House-Senate conference committee failed to win passage.

Asked about Sen. John Carona's amendment calling for the local option tax, Perry said the original proposal designed for North Texas was broadened to cover the entire state, making passage more difficult.

"This would have had huge implications for the whole state," Perry said.



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