June 4, 2008
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, in a rebuke to the Texas Department of Transportation, called Tuesday for putting the agency on what amounts to a four-year leash.
The commission’s staff, citing complaints that the increasingly politicized agency has been “out of control” in pursuing its toll road agenda, released a report that recommends the creation of a legislative oversight committee. The report says that having such a committee would amount to putting the agency under conservatorship.
The report also recommends abolishing the Texas Transportation Commission — which oversees TxDOT and whose five members wereall appointed by Gov. Rick Perry — and replacing it and the agency’s executive director with a single commissioner. That transportation commissioner would be appointed by the governor but subject to Senate confirmation or re-confirmation every two years.
If the Legislature adopts the recommendations next year, TxDOT would go through another review in four years rather than the normal 12-year sunset cycle that state law requires for all state agencies. The sunset panel is made up of 10 legislators and two public members appointed by Texas House and Senate leadership.
The Legislature and TxDOT have been at odds for more than a year over the governor’s Trans-Texas Corridor plan for cross-state tollways and the agency’s efforts to put toll roads in private hands under decades-long leases. Legislative leaders say that in the wake of the 2007 session, when legislation limiting some of TxDOT’s power to form such partnerships was passed, the agency has engaged in a war of words and statistics to get the Legislature to back down.
“Sunset staff found that this atmosphere of distrust permeated most of TxDOT’s actions and determined that it could not be an effective state transportation agency if trust and confidence were not restored,” the report says.
“Significant changes are needed to begin this restoration; tweaking the status quo is simply not enough. This report proposes decisive action to address TxDOT’s problems by establishing what is in effect a four-year ‘legislative conservatorship’ to return control over transportation policy to the Legislature, where it belongs.”
TxDOT declined to address the report’s specifics and instead issued a short statement.
“The confidence of the Legislature and the public are very important to us,” the statement from spokesman Chris Lippincott said. “We still have work to do, but we are confident that our ongoing efforts to improve the transparency and accessibility of TxDOT are making a positive impact. We look forward to our continued work with the members and staff of the Sunset Commission.”
Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said the report’s critical tone is “not really reflective of the progress that’s being made right now. … They started this report really under a different (transportation) commission. We have a new chair in place, and the governor gave her a charge of mending relationships with lawmakers.”
Deirdre DeLisi was named chairwoman this spring after Chairman Ric Williamson died.
As for going to a single commissioner — which could have the collateral effect of eliminating the public meetings held monthly by the current commission — Castle said Perry does not object.
“We’d be fine with that, if that’s the will of the Legislature,” Castle said.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said the recommended changes would restore the proper balance between the Legislature and TxDOT.
“There may be some specific recommendations (in the report) that need to be looked at” for tweaking, Watson said. “But you can generally state that this report has taken a clear stand for honesty, accountability and common sense.
“TxDOT’s a badly damaged agency, and this report is a first step and an important step in trying to restore its effectiveness and credibility.”
The report recommends that a transportation commissioner be subject to Senate confirmation (or reconfirmation) every two years. Current commissioners, who must be confirmed by the Senate, have six-year terms.
The report, without naming Perry, criticizes his practice in recent years of not naming replacement commissioners in a timely fashion, thus depriving the Legislature of its prime opportunity to exert oversight on agency policy. For instance, Williamson and Commissioner Hope Andrade served long after their terms expired in February 2007.
Perry named their replacements just a few weeks ago, and those new commissioners will serve for about eight months before the Legislature can convene and consider confirming their appointments.
Under the Sunset Commission’s recommendation, failure by the governor to name a commissioner appointee by Feb. 28 of odd-numbered years would transfer that authority to the lieutenant governor, who oversees the Senate.
The report said a legislative oversight committee could be created at no extra cost to the state by abolishing TxDOT’s Government and Public Affairs Research Section and giving those six positions to the new committee, which would be made up of six legislators.
“The committee’s purpose,” the report says, “would be to research, analyze, and report on the operation and needs of the system.” The committee would not have direct hiring and firing authority over agency employees or the commissioner.
It is unclear what the changes might mean for road construction or Texas highways.
Among other recommendations in the 157-page report:
Have the Legislature directly fund the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, rather than have the funding come from TxDOT.
Overhaul the agency’s Statewide Transportation Plan and in other ways make it more clear how and where money is being spent.
Make TxDOT’s Web site easier for the public to use.
Tuesday’s report will be followed by a public hearing in mid-July and a final vote by the sunset commission in September on sending recommendations to the Legislature.