February 16, 2009
We’re not nearly at the beginning of the end of the 81st Legislative Session. But we’re probably past the end of the beginning.
Last week, the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives announced new committees, so pretty much everyone now knows what they’ll be doing over the next three and a half months. It’s how-a-bill-becomes-a-law time, finally. More on the week ahead in a minute.
In case you missed it, I filed a half-dozen bills last week to make the state’s budget-writing process more open and honest, ensure legislators are spending money as they’ve promised, and protect small business owners, children, and the Texas economy. (Click here to read about the package and get details about the bills.)
At the risk of repeating myself … I won’t. But I will say that while I’ve long felt these sorts of budget reforms are needed, I’ve been really excited by the support and encouragement I’ve received this week from across the political spectrum.
Clearly, there’s a hunger for reform when it comes to the Texas budget. People want to be able to trust – and verify – that the state’s spending their money the way it’s supposed to and the way it’s promised. I hope my bills will jump-start a fundamental change in the way budget business is done at the Capitol.
As I said, legislative committees will start meeting in earnest this week. That includes the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, of which I’m Vice Chair again this session.
Transportation, of course, has been a political tinderbox over the last few years. It seems like a lot of the issues that made it so explosive will come to a head over the next 105 days.
The legislature will continue wrestling with a funding drought that’s forcing the state, local governments, and commuters to make tougher and tougher decisions every day.
As in a drought, Texas simply faces a shortage of money and growing, overwhelming need. The 81st Legislature won’t escape that dilemma, nor should it.
There will also be another installment in a long-running drama I’ll call TxDOT Transparency. It’s like Monopoly, only with several more zero’s, way less cash, and about as realistic money management.
For years, legislators protested and often fought the Texas Department of Transportation and its apparent agenda of building private toll roads. That dispute will play out this year in the Sunset Review process, which analyzes everything from what TxDOT does to how it’s constituted. The Legislature will also decide whether to re-authorize comprehensive development agreements, which have been the vehicle for much of the privatization agenda.
But the most important transportation debate may not ultimately play out under the dome at all.
This week, I expect Senator John Carona (who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and with whom I enjoy a close working relationship) to file a comprehensive bill that would allow a number of brand new, locally based tools and strategies to help pay for roads, rail and other pieces of a transportation system.
Such local mechanisms, most of which would need voter approval, have become absolutely essential as the state’s investment in transportation and other infrastructure shriveled.
In the past, big cities, small towns, and counties across Texas could count on the state and federal government to create a basic, effective skeleton of vital roads across the state. Under that system, the state provided for our economic infrastructure – what we needed then, and what we’d need in the future – while locals focused on smaller projects that improved residents’ quality of life or met immediate local needs or wants.
No more. The money drought – created, in my opinion, by poor decision-making at the state level – means more and more local jurisdictions have to pick up the state’s slack. I’ve long fretted that my kids would be part of the first generation of Texans that won’t have excess infrastructure to grow businesses and their economy into.
It now seems clear that local efforts and innovation, at least in part, are required to avoid that grim future.
There will surely be great debate about Senator Carona’s bill and other proposals over the next few months. Some measures, no doubt, will challenge some folks’ dogma about how Texas raises money. That’s a good debate to have, and I’m looking forward to it.
But the most important thing right now is to stay focused on the fundamental challenge: we have massive needs and inadequate resources to meet them. It’s well past time to get real, be creative, and show a willingness to try something new.