Patrick gives toll opponents a raw deal with new Senate Transportation Committee
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick announced committee assignments for the 86th session of the Texas Senate last week, and there’s no way to sugar coat it — toll opponents got shafted. The most notable shake-up on the Senate Transportation Committee is the removal of Vice Chair Senator Bob Hallfrom the committee. Four years ago, a group of freshmen senators known for being the fabulous eight took the Texas Senate by storm and ushered in a new era of conservatism in the upper chamber. Hall, Don Huffines, Lois Kolkhorst, Charles Perry, and Brandon Creighton were part of that group and their appointment to the Senate Transportation Committee was considered a gift by Patrick to the grassroots for creating a deliberate, conservative voting block on what had been a crony capitalist, pro-toll committee controlled by toll road special interests.
Senator Don Huffines was removed last session at the behest of the pro-toll committee chairman, Senator Robert Nichols, which began to erode the grassroots voting block. Huffines had filed a whopping 11 anti-toll bills his freshman session, so the loss of Huffines was bad enough. He was replaced with Kelly Hancock, whose Warren Buffet bill to get special access to the Texas auto market for special interests while continuing to exclude others, got slapped down by the grassroots quicker than a gnat on your knee. Hancock also made a comment during an interim committee hearing on toll collection reform advocating for a barricade blocking Texas drivers from tollways until they paid their toll bills similar to an airport parking lot that won’t let you out until you pay up. He was tapped to replace Hall as Vice Chair. Creighton was also taken off the committee. While Perry remains on the committee, many view Senator Kolkhorst as the only vocal toll opponent left on the committee.
Who did Patrick replace the anti-toll voting block with? Senator Royce West is back on the committee, which is shocking considering his law firm has profited from public bond sales for Dallas Rapid Transit among other public entities. The same is true of Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa who remains on the committee — his law firm does business with a litany of public toll road authorities. So Dallas now has someone representing them on the committee who stands to personally gain from bond deals instead of Hall who is a staunch opponent of toll schemes and without potential conflicts of interest. Wouldn’t newly elected Senator Angela Paxton have been a good choice to represent taxpayers in the North Texas area, especially since she hails from the most toll-concentrated county in the state, Collin County?
Newly elected Senator Carol Alvarado was also appointed to the committee, who consistently received an ‘F’ on anti-toll report cardswhen she was a House member. Charles Schwertner is also new to the committee, and he’s earned an ‘A’ average on anti-toll report cards, however, his influence has been greatly diminished by a sexting scandal, ultimately forcing him to resign from leadership over the Senate Health Committee. Make no bones about it, toll opponents had the rug pulled out from under them.
Hall is a rare lawmaker who digs into the nitty-gritty of an issue, studies the problems, and formulates solutions that are a better deal for taxpayers. Hall has already filed bills to repeal the universally disliked Driver Responsibility Program (that traps the poor in an endless cycle of criminal penalties they cannot possibly pay to get their drivers license back legally), to remove tolls once the debt is paid, to repeal exorbitant toll fines and fees that have been used to bludgeon and abuse Texas drivers into financial ruin and criminal penalties, a bill to help get major transportation projects funded without raising taxes, as well as a bill to make local toll authorities more accountable by broadcasting and archiving their board meetings over the internet. It’s safe to say, Hall has become a transportation expert and takes aim at the bureaucracies wreaking havoc on Texas drivers everywhere. So why would Patrick remove him from the one committee where most of Hall’s focus, energy, and expertise has been directed?
Patrick asked for and received the endorsement from Texans for Toll-free Highways, PAC for his stellar record fighting toll roads since he was first elected Lt. Governor. So the removal of Senator Hall from the Senate Transportation Committee is a major kick in the gut to taxpayers and his own supporters, especially considering the recent retirement of former House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett, a huge advocate for removing tolls from roads that are paid for who had declared war on toll managed lanes that are making congestion worse, not better.
There are few places to turn to find reputable, reliable toll opponents willing to fight for taxpayers and call out toll bureaucrats when they’re trying to pull a fast one (which happens frequently in committee). Removing one of the biggest anti-toll advocates not only from his leadership position as Vice Chair, but from the committee altogether, just doesn’t pass the smell test. Something’s terribly wrong and voters need to be made aware that the fix is in — don’t expect toll road reform. Apparently toll taxes, that now approach the level of a property tax bill for many households topping $300/month per driver in some cases, is not part of broader tax reform being touted by leadership. After making a strong ‘no more tolls’ promise in November 2017, it’s hard to fathom how the composition of the Senate Transportation Committee could be any worse for toll opponents. Voters need to hold Patrick’s feet to the fire and demand toll tax reform along with property tax reform this session. What good does it do to put money in one pocket only to take it out of the other? That doesn’t give Texans net tax relief and silence is approval.