Castillo: State forces toll roads as it plays budget shell game

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Motorists forced to face toll roads as state plays budget shell game
By Jaime Castillo
San Antonio Express-News

It’s amazing what pushes the outrage needle these days.Web hits mushroom and national debate ensues when a blowhard like Al Sharpton accuses another blowhard like Don Imus of making dumb statements.

If Britney so much as leaves her compound, the world stands still.

But here in Texas, it’s a mere annoyance that the Legislature and state transportation officials are making bigger fools out of us than we previously thought.

Gridlocked Texas drivers have known for some time that they are being held hostage, caught between a vice of gutless state budgeting and Gov. Rick Perry’s love affair with toll roads.

We’ve been asked to swallow tolled highways as the only way out of a situation in which construction costs are rising as fast or faster than a booming general population.

And we’ve been told to do this while state lawmakers poke us in the eye with one hand and use the other to continue to drain highway dollars for things that have nothing to do with building roads.

In the current two-year state budget, another $1.57 billion will be diverted from road building to allow the supposedly fiscally conservative state leadership to balance the books in other areas.

And now we come to find out, the situation is even worse.

During a Senate hearing Tuesday, it was revealed that the Texas Department of Transportation made a $1.1 billion accounting error when it erroneously tallied some bond proceeds twice.

The news came a day after a story by Peggy Fikac in the Express-News showing that more than $3 billion in dedicated fees and taxes will go unspent for their specified purposes, which include trauma care and clean-air efforts.

The reason?

State lawmakers are using the money to shore up the budget in other areas.

As one economist put it: “We’re basically borrowing from ourselves. It’s like using the rent money to pay the food bill.”

A governor’s spokesman pointed the finger at the Legislature, saying lawmakers need “to square up with Texans” and make the budgeting process more “transparent.”

Rep. Warren Chisum, the Republican chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, dismissed the whole matter as nothing more than “a bookkeeping deal.”

In this void of accountability, the state is continuing a long tradition of watching revenue from things like the state lottery go to places other than where officials told us it was going to go.

A major subplot of this year’s state legislative elections is the future of unpopular House Speaker Tom Craddick.

If a coalition of moderates and Democrats succeed in toppling him, they should remain mindful of the fate of the current Democratic Congress.

After being handed a majority in the U.S. House by frustrated voters, the new leadership shamefully plunged ahead and continued the pork-barrel system of funding local projects through things called budget earmarks.

Today, the approval ratings of Congress are worse than those of war-torn President Bush.

We Texans now know that our state’s budgetary shell game involves highways, state parks, trauma care and clean-air efforts.

What we don’t know is if Texas lawmakers — from either political party — will ever understand why this is wrong.