TxDOT public relations, lobbying arm questioned

Link to article here. Read the damaging evidence TURF’s lawsuit to stop TxDOT’s illegal lobbying and ad campaign to promote toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor uncovered here.

TxDOT spends $10.5 million to inform public
Key legislator takes issue with how agency’s money is spent
By PEGGY FIKAC
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Nov. 30, 2008

AUSTIN — When state lawmakers expressed surprise at the size of the Texas Department of Transportation’s government relations and public affairs operation, they didn’t know the half of it.

The heft of TxDOT’s Government and Public Affairs division, which is budgeted for 63 people and nearly $6.5 million a year, raised eyebrows earlier this year after concerns the agency had promoted issues such as toll roads and the ambitious Trans-Texas Corridor network despite opposition from the public and a number of lawmakers.

It turns out the GPA division is only part of the agency’s public-information picture. Sixty-seven more people do public information or media relations for TxDOT, including those working at the agency’s district office.

TxDOT said it couldn’t tally how much is budgeted for such duties outside of GPA, saying most, if not all, the staffers also perform other tasks. Their salaries alone amount to $4 million a year, according to figures released in response to a public information request from the Houston Chronicle.

That means $10.5 million is spent annually on government and public affairs by TxDOT, largely excluding staffers who promote tourism and travel.

“So, $10.5 million to communicate as poorly as we have communicated is probably not acceptable,” said Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, a member of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is considering possible changes at TxDOT and had a hearing earlier this year that included a look at GPA’s size.

Kolkhorst, who pushed a moratorium on privately operated toll roads in 2007, has taken issue with TxDOT’s approach. TxDOT’s commission is appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, who has championed toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor, and the agency has been accused of too actively following suit.

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said agency efforts have been within the parameters of the law.

A huge response to town hall meetings and to a solicitation of comments on the Trans-Texas Corridor shows the effectiveness of its efforts, Lippincott said.

He said issues such as toll roads make up only part of TxDOT’s public information operation, which also works to inform people on such things as routes to take when hurricanes are imminent.

“We touch just about everybody in this state that gets in a car or gets on a bus or a train,” he said, “and that requires a lot of interaction.”

Outgoing House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, said

TxDOT handles complex issues that require communication and public hearings.

Lippincott noted that the amount spent on the GPA division and other public information efforts amounts to a tiny fraction — 0.125 percent, or just over one-tenth of 1 percent of TxDOT’s nearly $8.4 billion annual budget.

He noted TxDOT is in a hiring “chill” affecting the GPA division, which currently has 54 positions filled.

The total is, however, larger than what the other five largest state agencies in Texas calculate they spend under the label of government and public affairs.

The one that comes closest is the Department of State Health Services, with 30 people in its consumer, external affairs and Web office, with a combined budget of $2.54 million. That’s 0.09 percent of the agency’s total annual budget of nearly $2.8 billion.

Among others:

•The Texas Education Agency has 17 people in communications, governmental relations, media services and Web services, budgeted at $1.3 million. The total is nearly 0.005 percent of the $26.3 billion in funds that flow through the agency.
•The Health and Human Services Commission has 21 people in communications and external relations offices, budgeted at nearly $1.6 million — 0.0099 percent of its $16 billion annual budget. That total doesn’t include $2.35 million for advertising work related to two public information campaigns.
•The Department of Aging and Disability Services has 21 people in communications and government relations, with a $1.15 million tab for overhead and salaries nearly 0.019 percent of its total budget of nearly $6.2 billion annually.
•The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has 18 people in government and public affairs, budgeted at $769,717. That’s nearly 0.027 percent of its total budget of nearly $2.9 billion.
But Krusee said that comparing TxDOT to another agency is “not apples-to-apples.”

“They have a different mission, and it’s a far more complex process which requires communication with the public at a level of pervasiveness and complexity probably unmatched elsewhere in state government,” Krusee said.

Kolkhorst said, “The No. 1 thing that the Sunset report talked about was that this agency had lost the trust of the people.

“And how do you lose trust? You lose trust by actions and words, and I’m very disappointed that we’re spending $10.5 million, more than we’ve ever spent, and the trust could not be at a lower level than it is today.”

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