Legislature investigates TxDOT's propaganda campaign

Link to article here. TURF testified before the House State Affairs Committee regarding TxDOT’s illegal propaganda and lobbying campaign, Keep Texas Moving. The legislators were shocked at how far over the line TxDOT has crossed, and will likely seek changes in the law that TxDOT claims allows them to advertise toll roads and restrain any attempts by a state agency to advocate or lobby. The legislators asked specifically for what legal ramifications there would be both criminally and civilly for TxDOT’s violations. Though TURF’s case against TxDOT was dismissed in trial court before the case was ever heard (the court upheld TxDOT’s plea of sovereign immunity) and before our evidence was presented, it’s now pending appeal.

Legislators want state to tell, not sell
By Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News
July 19, 2008
AUSTIN — Government spending on advertising is being put under a microscope by state lawmakers who say they want to ensure public funds are used to inform — not unduly influence — Texans.

The effort was sparked by concerns over a divisive toll road campaign by the Texas Department of Transportation, which was in a familiar spotlight at Friday’s House State Affairs Committee hearing on the issue.

“We get all of the advantages of the toll roads, and yet there are a lot of people that see a lot of disadvantages,” said Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, State Affairs member. “It seems like there was almost an effort to go beyond what the legislative intent was. ….. We have an agency here that kind of has their agenda that is different from ….. legislative intent. I guess that’s what our concerns are.”

Coby Chase, director of TxDOT’s government and public affairs division, responded, “We have most certainly, certainly heard that.” He said that the agency is “reassessing everything.”

Some $4.5 million has been spent on the Keep Texas Moving campaign, but there are no additional big advertising pushes in the works under its banner, according to TxDOT. The campaign originally was proposed at $7 million to $9 million. Chase called it a response to concerns that people didn’t understand toll roads.

The ad campaign had a ripple effect by prompting Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, State Affairs vice chairman, to call for the committee to study advertising practices across state government.

State agencies’ public awareness campaigns often give useful information, but “some state agencies may have overstepped their bounds by actually advertising their programs in an effort to lobby the public to support their agenda or utilize a particular service,” Paxton said.

The committee gave an initial look Friday to everything from health officials touting the benefits of breast feeding to promotion of state agricultural products to the Texas Lottery Commission’s advertising.

It’s unclear just how much state agencies spend on promotions, since state records don’t precisely track them.

But an examination of state records last year by the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle found the tally for advertising, publications and promotional items could easily reach $100 million or more in state and federal funds just for fiscal year 2008.

The tourism section of Perry’s office, for example, has a $40 million advertising budget; the Lottery Commission spends $31 million; TxDOT budgeted $18.4 million for advertising, aside from the Keep Texas Moving program; and the secretary of state’s office had an estimated $4 million budget for such efforts.

Some efforts draw more attention than others, such as those of the Lottery Commission. Flynn said many people are offended at ads they see as urging people to gamble for children’s futures, since lottery money flows to public education.

Anthony Sadberry, Lottery Commission executive director, said the agency is sensitive to such concerns. He said it has a mandate to promote the lottery but to not unduly influence people to play. Asked how the agency achieves that, Sadberry said dryly, “Well, it’s a challenge,” prompting laughter.

It was TxDOT, however, that drew much of the attention, a spot to which the agency is accustomed. Last week, it faced criticism from the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which looks at whether agencies are in need of major changes or should be continued. Sunset staff has recommended major changes.

Its Keep Texas Moving campaign on toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor transportation network struck a particular nerve with lawmakers, who’ve heard an outcry over the corridor’s possible route from landowners and have sought to rein in state partnerships with private companies on toll roads. Both ideas have been pushed by Gov. Rick Perry as an answer to traffic congestion and tax revenues that are short of meeting road needs.

Chase said that before launching the Keep Texas Moving campaign, “We were rightly subject to criticism — maybe we overreacted and overdid it ….. that nobody understood any dynamic of the toll road program.” He said that gap in information ranged from how land was acquired to the mechanics of entrances and exits: “We decided to answer all of those on the Keep Texas moving Web site and then also drive people to the public involvement process.”

But critics such as Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom said the agency crossed the line. TURF filed a lawsuit, recently dismissed in state court, contending the campaign violated a prohibition on state officers or employees using their authority for political purposes. TURF plans to appeal the dismissal.