Hastily approved TxDOT sunset bill offers some toll relief, but riddled with new loopholes
As the Texas legislature comes to a close tomorrow, the antics of some lawmakers warrants scrutiny when it comes to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sunset bill, SB 312, that passed yesterday evening. The House passed a strong anti-toll bill May 17, adding several good anti-toll measures pushed by grassroots pro-taxpayer groups for over a decade. SB 312 must pass or the highway department goes away. Rather than concur with the House version, the Senate chose to reject the House version (which signaled trouble ahead), forcing both the House and Senate to appoint a conference committee to work out the differences in the bill.
This is where the chicanery usually happens, and it did.
The Texas Legislature web site did not have SB 312’s conference committee report available to be viewed by the public until after 2 PM Saturday. It was not eligible to be voted on until 2:10 PM Sunday, yet the House suspended the rules and rushed a vote to concur with the conference committee’s changes at 6:30 PM. The Senate did the same before it adjourned Saturday evening as well — pushing passage of a 100-page bill before anyone could read what was in it.
The rules governing conference committees are very limited. Conferees cannot add anything into a bill that isn’t already in either version the House or Senate passed. They essentially decide what amendments stay in or get removed. On rare occasions, they could go to their colleagues and ask them to vote to go ‘outside the bounds’ of what a conference committee can do in order to add in new language under strict limits if lawmakers agree. However, loopholes and exceptions were added to SB 312, and the House and Senate authors did not fully notice their colleagues of the loopholes and completely new language they added.
For example, at the very end of this lengthy bill in Section 78 pertaining to the prohibition on an HOV lane being converted into a toll lane, it grants a new exception for all projects that are contained in the state’s air quality implementation plan prior to September 1, 2017. This means virtually every managed toll lane project in Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth, the Texas cities that are in non-attainment for federal air quality standards, can still convert an existing HOV lane into a toll lane, despite both chambers voting to prohibit it.
This exception was not deemed a significant problem in committee nor did it prevent passage by the full Senate when Sen. Bob Hall’s SB 1143 (which is the same language of the amendment tacked onto SB 312 in the House) passed, 29-2. Yet new language was suddenly required at the eleventh hour and was added into the bill without adequately notifying lawmakers of the change that impacts several projects, including one important to Hall’s constituents, where an HOV lane on I-635 East is slated to be converted to a toll lane.
Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and Rep. Joe Pickett’s amendment, which was a bill that had already passed the Senate, SB 812, also had completely new language inserted. Their amendment requires toll project entities to repay any funds they receive from the state. The public resents having their ‘free’ road funds going into toll roads then having to pay again to use them. The state currently grants most toll entities road taxes to the tune of $10 billion and has rarely required any of those funds to be repaid to the state. In fact, the local toll agencies get to keep most, if not all, of the toll revenues locally.
Both the House and Senate voted to stop this unrestricted gravy train and require funds to be repaid, yet a handful of conferees overruled them to allow toll projects as far back as January 1, 2014, to move forward without requiring repayment of those funds if the environmental review on those projects had commenced by that date. The whole purpose of this legislation is to require funds to be repaid on any project that isn’t already operating as a toll road. Lawmakers should, at a minimum, demand TxDOT produce a list of just how many toll projects this exception allows to move forward without repaying the taxpayers.
For whom the bill tolls
An amendment by Rep. Ina Minjarez sought to remove criminal penalties for toll violations and drastically reduce the administrative fees and fines that could be levied against motorists. It passed by an overwhelming majority in the House by a vote of 136-3. Yet, this same handful of conferees put criminal penalties back into the bill. The House debated the criminal penalties and overwhelmingly decided to remove them. They felt strongly that no Texan should be made a criminal or have their ability to drive taken away for failure to pay a fine/fee. It’s a throw back to debtors prisons.
The new language actually captures more people as ‘violators’ by making them a criminal if they simply haven’t paid a single toll after supposedly receiving two bills. The toll could be for one trip for $.20 or $2.00 and they’ll now be punished under what used to be a habitual toll violator with 100 or more unpaid toll transactions.
Many Texans complain they never receive the first bill from the toll entity and then later get a late payment notice after being put into collections, erroneously, and after penalties are already imposed. This happened to Rep. Tom Oliverson who described his outrage at the experience during the House debate on SB 312 leading up to the overwhelming adoption of the Minjarez amendment to de-criminalize. The House never even made a whimper, nor did it express any outrage at the conferees trampling on the intent of their amendment and hence thousands of Texans who fall victim to this toll violation nightmare when they voted to adopt SB 312’s conference committee report in haste last night.
With the public trust in government at an all time low, the Texas legislature delivered more fodder to get voters angry. The flagrant violation of the legislature’s own rules and lack of transparency alone, much less the content of what was passed, provides enough angst to warrant accountability for those who perpetrated it. The way conference committees roll in Texas is taxpayers take a back seat to government lobbyists who undo the intent of what they see as hostile legislation to their existence and add or remove language, at will, outside the public purview. Conferees are not supposed to rewrite legislation on the fly behind closed doors and fail to fully inform or get permission from their colleagues.
The ten conferees — Senators Robert Nichols, Kirk Watson, Chuy Hinojosa, Kelly Hancock, and Van Taylor, and Representatives Larry Gonzales, Geanie Morrison, Richard Raymond, Cindy Burkett, and Senfronia Thompson — hijacked the House amendments in order to allow toll entities to continue as usual under the status quo when both the Senate and House decidedly voted to restrain tolling and bring greater protection to the driving public from runaway toll taxation, fines, and fees that are financially straining many Texans.
There are some shiny spots in this otherwise gloomy picture, however. Perhaps the biggest victory of all was killing the bill to re-authorize public private partnership toll roads, HB 2861. Nineteen Texas highways would have been handed over in government-sanctioned monopolies giving private, foreign corporations the exclusive right to extract the highest possible toll in 50-year sweetheart deals. That era is now over. There is still plenty to celebrate in SB 312 as well.
Anti-toll reforms in SB 312:
1) Texans will now be protected from having their free lanes converted to toll lanes or having their free lanes downgraded to frontage roads.
2) Despite the exceptions added, HOV lanes cannot be converted into toll lanes.
3) Toll administrative fees will be capped at $48/year, and any criminal fines are capped at $250/year (versus the current system where thousands can be tacked on).
4) Tolls will be removed from Camino Columbia toll road in Laredo and the Cesar Chavez toll project in El Paso (after a vote by local El Paso officials who have indicated they support removing the tolls). This sets an important precedent to get tolls removed from other projects.
5) Any state funds for toll projects that had environmental review commence by January 1, 2014, must be repaid. The grant/subsidy, double tax gravy train is now over.
Taxpayers pushed for over a decade to get these reforms in place and finally got them in SB 312. However, the temptation to do a victory lap is tainted by the conference committee’s actions that left the bill riddled with exceptions and loopholes that must be addressed in a future session. Now it’s time to hold key players accountable for what they did.