Citizen lawsuit to stop TxDOT’s taxpayer-funded lobbying to continue
(Austin, TX – June 23, 2009) Governor Rick Perry vetoed HB 2142 (authored by Rep. Ruth McClendon), which could have settled the issue of the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) misuse of taxpayer money to attempt to sway public opinion in favor of toll roads, particularly privatized toll roads, and the Trans Texas Corridor.
“Governor Perry prefers to pour salt in the wound instead of allow meaningful reform of his highway department that’s run amok and lost the trust of many Texans. The wholesale outrage over TxDOT’s propaganda campaign from taxpayers and lawmakers alike prompted the Legislature to act, and, as is his usual course of action, Perry instead chooses to stick his thumb in Texans’ eyes rather than protect citizens from the abuses of taxpayer-funded lobbying,” concluded Texas TURF Founder Terri Hall.
“Losers” still get paid
To further demonstrate the Governor’s (and Legislature’s) total disregard for fiscal responsibility when it comes to toll roads, he also signed SB 882 (authored by Sen. John Carona) that EXPANDS payments to LOSING bidders by Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) to design-build contracts and allows those payments to exceed $250,000 (which was the cap placed on losing bidders on Comprehensive Developments Agreements)!
“The mantra in Austin is ‘the sky is falling, we have no money for roads,’ yet we have money to pay LOSING BIDDERS who won’t even build any roads? Wouldn’t every other industry that bids on government contracts love this goodie? They didn’t pass a bill to continue TxDOT or the Department of Insurance, but they were sure to pass this one,” Hall noted.
SB 882 also repeals the prohibitions on Board members and RMA Directors from receiving gifts and contributions, which clearly takes a step backwards and allows conflicts of interest to abound.
Keep Texas Moving dubbed propaganda campaign
Lawmakers studied TxDOT’s ad campaign in-depth in the interim between the 2007 and 2009 legislative sessions where even the Director of the Government and Public Affairs Division (GPA), Coby Chase admitted in testimony before the State Affairs Committee that “maybe we did overdo it.” Both chambers overwhelmingly passed this bill to send a clear message that TxDOT can only provide public information not crossover into public persuasion on the taxpayers’ dime. As a result of its overreach, the TxDOT sunset bill, HB 300, had the GPA division report directly to the Legislature.
In 2007, TxDOT raised eyebrows when it waged an ad campaign called Keep Texas Moving that clearly tried to change public opinion in favor of Perry’s toll road policies, including hiring registered lobbyists (in excess of $100,000 a month) to get buy-in from local elected officials for the Trans Texas Corridor and persuade members of Congress to allow TxDOT to buy-back existing interstates for the purpose of tolling them. (Read more here)
TURF vs. TxDOT before the Appeals Court
TURF appeared before the Third District Court of Appeals April 24, 2009, in its lawsuit (TURF vs. Texas Department of Transportation or TxDOT) to halt the misuse of taxpayer money for attempting to sell the public on toll roads. Justices demonstrated they were monitoring the actions of the lawmakers in regards to legislation pertaining to the case and noted that the Legislature had acted. TURF attorney, Charles Riley, pointed out that the public cannot be assured TxDOT has been restrained by proposed legislation since the Governor could still veto it. Unfortunately, Riley was proven right by Perry’s veto Friday. Perry’s veto all but ensures the case will continue.
The lawsuit was brought in September 2007 pursuant to § 37, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. TURF believes the law clearly prohibits TxDOT’s expenditure of public funds for the Keep Texas Moving pro-toll, pro-Trans Texas Corridor propaganda campaign.
TxDOT has violated § 556.004 of the Texas Government Code by directing the expenditure of public funds for political advocacy in support of toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor, and have directly lobbied the United States Congress in favor of additional toll road programs as evidenced in its report, Forward Momentum.
Not a license to lobby the public and elected officials
TxDOT claims it has the authority to advertise and promote toll roads citing Chapter 228.004 of the Transportation Code. However, lawmakers have stated they never intended that law to give license to TxDOT to lobby the public in favor of toll road policy, but rather advertising more akin to “get your Toll Tag here.” Rep. Lois Kolkhorst said in an Express-News article in September 2007, “The Legislature did not tell TxDOT to go on a media campaign explaining the pros of the Trans-Texas Corridor and private equity investment (in toll roads).”
“TxDOT is still waging a one-sided political campaign designed to sway public opinion in favor of the policy that puts money in TxDOT’s own coffers. TxDOT may have ceased hiring outside consultants, but by its own admission, it has instead hired an in-house lobbyist, and its Keep Texas Moving web site and use of Department resources continue to attempt to get buy-in for toll roads from lawmakers and the public alike,” says an incredulous Hall.
On August 22, 2007, TURF filed a formal complaint with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to investigate TxDOT’s illegal lobbying and asked him to prosecute TxDOT for criminal wrongdoing. See the formal complaint here. TURF’s petition seeks to stop TxDOT’s misuse of taxpayer money in a civil proceeding.
Terri Hall is the Founder of Texas TURF. TURF is a non-partisan grassroots group of citizens concerned about toll road policy and the Trans Texas Corridor. TURF promotes non-toll transportation solutions. For more information, please visit their web site at: www.texasturf.org