November 20, 2009
Sen. Kirk Watson spent most of last session negotiating the budget rider for a modest pot of seed money for the long-anticipated rail relocation fund, only to find out recently the agency may toss out the funding on a technicality by the Comptroller.
Needless to say, Watson has not minced words on the subject, most of it on the road in dialogue with agency officials at Senate Transportation and Homeland Security meetings in Arlington and El Paso. This week, the disagreement came to light when Sen. Jeff Wentworth filed a request for opinion with the Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, asking for a clarification of the legal terms of what constituted a diversion out of the agency’s resources, arguing it was actually a transfer.
Watson certainly wanted to see that $190 million, which will be necessary to give the the Texas Department of Transportation’s newly expanded rail staff something to do. But what bothers the Central Texas senator even more is the way TxDOT did it. Bad blood already exists between Watson and the agency, after Central Texas lawmakers took a potential political suicide vote to support a regional toll plan in 2007, only to find out the agency no longer had the money to back up their portion of those plans.
At the hearing in El Paso, TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz said the funding for the rail relocation fund could be not released unless the money used to create the new Department of Motor Vehicles was considered to be a diversion out of available TxDOT funds or the transfer of agency resources to a new division.
“One of the tests out of the appropriations bill was whether money from Fund 6 was going to go to other agencies,” Saenz said in his conversation with Watson in El Paso. “Is the money going to the new Motor Vehicles Department, is it a new agency or is it TxDOT? Someone needs to make that determination.”
This sudden legal obstacle is not one that Watson completely understands. The senator cut his deal with the agency’s help, on terms the agency appeared to accept when everyone signed off on the rider. Now that deal has disappeared.
“Either they were acting in a way that is just vague and hard to understand, and that’s the best-case scenario,” Watson said of the negotiations with TxDOT. “Or they were acting in bad faith because they have since that time, in my view, tried to sabotage the effort to get money into this fund.”
Those who are grossly cynical, in fact, might actually presume TxDOT had a sure-fire way to kill the rail relocation fund by simply setting up a budget transfer imbalance in which the cost of starting up the new Department of Motor Vehicles would cost more than the new agency was asking for its own creation, Watson said. According to the rider, if money is diverted, the rail relocation fund is nullified.
According to testimony from the DMV’s new chair to Watson’s questions in El Paso, the cost of setting up the agency was $3.4 million above the transferred functions, most of it due to the cost of software licenses.
If you go back to listen to the audio from the El Paso meeting, Watson’s exchange with Victor Vandergriff, the DMV chair, is around the 1:00:00 mark. Watson and Saenz’s exchange over the rail relocation fund is at the 1:47:00 mark.
If there has been some intentional recasting of the budget numbers – and TxDOT declined to comment on the allegations, except to say the AG would make a ruling – then it’s another sign to Watson of TxDOT going its own way after a session.
“TxDOT, in its typical fashion, has politicized an issue that should not be politicized,” said Watson, noting that voters approved the fund in 2005 and lawmakers passed the funding for that fund last session. “In their typical fashion, they’re telling you one thing and doing another, so I’m very disappointed in the way they handled this.”
TxDOT, for its part, issued only a one-line statement from Spokesman Chris Lippincott: “The matter has been referred to the Attorney General for his opinion.”
TxDOT’s job should be to figure out ways to make a long-term multi-modal transportation plan work in the state; not to make assumptions that lawmakers really weren’t serious about something like a rail division.
Texas Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi, on the other hand, did make supportive comments about ramping up the TxDOT rail division at the recent TTARA meeting. Watson said he considered Delisi’s intention on rail – and her comments to him on the subject — to be open and upfront and suggested a possible disconnect between the commissioners and agency upper management.