DALLAS — The Texas Department of Transportation faces heightened scrutiny in the Legislature after release of documents showing the agency hired a lobbyist and used Gov. Rick Perry’s pollster in a campaign to promote toll roads, according to state Sen. John Carona.
Carona, R-Dallas, is the powerful chairman of the state Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, and the chief engineer of the current transportation law governing how toll projects are awarded. The committee will hold a hearing Feb. 5 on TxDOT’s cash flow crisis as well as its decision to shift funding from new construction to maintenance and the use of state funds for promotion of alternative toll-road funding.
“They are talking about diverting huge sums of money from construction to maintenance,” Carona said. “At no time was an impending cash-flow crisis or a shift in money from construction to maintenance discussed in the last legislative session.”
Carona said that there is “speculation” that TxDOT diverted the funding to maintenance as “retaliation” for Senate Bill 792’s imposition of a two-year moratorium on private funding and operation of toll roads. The bill, orchestrated by Carona and signed into law last June, called for a study of transportation funding. The first meeting of the committee studying the issue will also take place Feb. 5 at the state Capitol in Austin.
TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the agency will delay more than $1 billion worth of projects in fiscal 2008 due to funding constraints. He said the shifting of funds to maintenance is still under discussion.
As for the motives behind the shift, Lippincott said, “If Sen. Carona and members of his committee want to ask us that question, we’ll be happy to answer. I don’t see a lot of value in going through (the media) to answer that in advance of the hearing.”
Commenting on documents that surfaced in a court case in Austin last week, Carona said TxDOT might have exceeded its authority to promote an issue. Under state law, government agencies cannot take part in political campaigns.
“It appears that they may have crossed the line in using a PR firm for advocacy purposes,” Carona said. “I’m not saying they broke the law. The most troubling issue is that they seem to be heading in a direction that is contrary to the wishes of a majority of Texans.”
The documents include invoices of $63,450 for lobbyists, a poll and suggested quotes in an e-mail. The poll was conducted by Baselice & Associates, whose founder, Mike Baselice, is also Perry’s pollster.
The documents came from the discovery process in a lawsuit in which Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom contends that TxDOT officials violated a ban on lobbying and taking part in a political campaign.
The lawsuit targets TxDOT’s estimated $7 million to $9 million campaign called “Keep Texas Moving.” The campaign promotes toll roads and ambitious projects such as the Trans Texas Corridor, a massive alternative highway and rail system.
Perry has been a major advocate of the Trans Texas Corridor and use of funding from private developers for toll projects.
In a press release on the organization’s Web site, TURF claims that TxDOT broke the law by hiring four lobbyists who appeared before various government bodies.
TxDOT said that it could not comment on a matter in litigation but issued a statement that read:
“The January 23, 2008 press release from TURF attempts to interpret documents received through the discovery process for their ongoing litigation against TxDOT. As we have said, it is our responsibility to engage Texans in a meaningful dialogue about transportation. It is not possible to meet our state’s transportation goals without public awareness and public involvement.”