DALLAS - The embattled Texas Department of Transportation is preparing to defend its existence in the state's Sunset Review process as it seeks to mend fences with legislative leaders offended by recent explanations of financial distress.
Two months after the death of its outspoken boss, Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson, TxDOT is operating under the less combative Esperanza "Hope" Andrade of San Antonio, who was named interim chair on Jan. 28.
At the same time, TxDOT is shifting top management under executive director Amadeo Saenz, who was promoted to the top administrative post last October. Saenz named key players to his management team this month.
At a specially called meeting of key legislative committees on Feb. 5, Saenz said that administrative changes will help prevent embarrassments like last year's $1 billion overestimate of revenue available for regional projects.
Angry lawmakers accused the agency of seeking to disguise the mistake under chronic complaints of inadequate funding. Legislators, who added billions of dollars in borrowing power to the agency last May, said TxDOT was implying that they had failed to provide for the state's transportation needs.
"It is highly irresponsible to blame the legislature for poor planning. This is at best intellectually dishonest, and I, for one, do not appreciate it," Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, told Saenz and Andrade at the hearing.
At that hearing, Saenz said he would welcome an audit by the legislature, even though the agency is already in the midst of its Sunset Review, for which an audit was prepared last year.
After the hearing, Lieut. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick, both Republicans, sent a letter to state auditor John Keel seeking a comprehensive review of the "entire financial process of TxDOT." No date has been set for the audit.
TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the extra scrutiny should not interfere with the agency's day-to-day tasks.
"It's not uncommon and it's not unwelcome to have the auditors with us," he said. "It does take time and a process to work with the auditor, but that's one of the things we do."
Meanwhile, the Sunset Commission staff will issue a report in May recommending solutions to any problems found. The Commission will then meet to hear public testimony on the agency and the recommendations of the Sunset staff, most likely in June. The commission will then adopt recommendations for the full Legislature to consider when it convenes in January 2009.
The commission, composed of legislators and public members, periodically evaluates a state agency to determine if the agency is still needed, and what improvements are needed to ensure that state funds are well spent. Based on the recommendations of the Sunset Commission, the legislature decides whether an agency continues to operate.