Friday, July 18, 2008

Staff report on TxDOT to the Sunset Commission

I attended the TxDOT Sunset hearing on July 15 and will give the highlights. The TxDOT part of the hearing began at 10 a.m. and did not conclude until about 10 p.m. There is so much material here that I’m dividing it into parts. I will begin with the report of the staff to the Commission members.
The hearing began at 9 a.m. The Sunset Commission considered Racing Commission matters before they took up TxDOT. I arrived at 8:30 and managed to snag one of the last seats in the hearing room. About 90 people were seated in this room with 20 standing at the back, and there were overflow rooms.
Our HD 52 Representative Mike Krusee arrived about 9, left and returned a couple of times, and was in the room by 10, when the Commission started considering TxDOT. He left and returned some more, finally leaving before the staff report was finished and not returning.
The Sunset staff report was presented by Director Joey Longley and Senior Manager Jennifer Jones. Longley set the tone by saying that his staff had never before encountered anything like the scope of what needs to be done with TxDOT. “We suggest a four-year legislative conservatorship; there is bold decisive action in front of you.” He asked the Commission “to keep your eye on the prize and return control of the transportation policy of the state to the legislature where it belongs.”
Then Jennifer Jones briefly set out the major issues covered in the written report:
1. Replace the Transportation Commission with a single commissioner.
2. Jones described TxDOT’s planning efforts as “disjointed,” and the staff recommended bringing “transparency and accountability” to TxDOT.
3. Jones recommended improving TxDOT information efforts.
4. She said that TxDOT is the largest user of contract services of all state agencies, and the staff recommends improving oversight of this.
Commission Chairman Representative Carl Issett complimented the staff report. He said, “You capture the dissatisfaction of legislators and citizens. We need to restore the trust of the legislature. You have brought us provocative ideas to consider.”
Rep. Ruth McClendon addressed replacing the Transportation Commission. She said to great applause, “The public wants an elected commissioner. We should look at an elected commissioner.” She asked the staff for the pros and cons of an elected commissioner, and Chairman Isett asked the staff to “bring that back to us as a modification”
Rep. Linda Harper-Brown noted that 76% of the people who commented wanted an elected commissioner.
Rep. Lois Kolkhorst said she “has distrust in TxDOT’s financing because of their one billion accounting error.” She asked if TxDOT was immune from the prohibition on lobbying. She said, “The Keep Texas Moving campaign seems like advocacy,” and asked, “Do other agencies have websites that advocate certain positions?” Jones answered no. Kolkhorst related discussions she has had with other legislators, who have told her that they would like to support her efforts to reform TxDOT, but who were threatened. “There were threats of not getting a road widened if they stood up against TxDOT.” She asked the staff to check the question related to lobbying of the legislature, and she recommended an “inspector general.”
Rep. Harper-Brown recommended an “auditor general. I would like to review TxDOT again in two years.” Isett asked the staff to look at that.
New public member Charles McMahen said the transportation problems are mainly with urban areas. He questioned the competence of TxDOT’s financial staff. “You bring about discipline and competence by firing people who are not doing their jobs. The problems are so systemic, I question whether management can do the job. They are wasting taxpayer dollars when we need roads.”
Regarding the issue of planning, Jones recommended updating the ’94 state transportation plan and bringing in local planning. Harper-Brown said there should be planning before budgeting. “Set goals, then do appropriations for plans, not just give TxDOT money and they spend it.”
On the issue of information, McClendon declared, “The culture within TxDOT needs to change.” Kolkhorst, noting that TxDOT’s website is inadequate, said, “I can’t find the minute orders from the website. There are 67 employees in their government and public affairs division, the biggest of any state agency.” Legislators wondered why TxDOT couldn’t do a better job of public information with so many employees.
Regarding the contracting process, Harper-Brown said the risk will increase dramatically for Comprehensive Development Agreements. A DeLoitte audit showed them vulnerable to fraud, with large financial implications for TxDOT. She asked the Sunset staff to consider if “we should create a department of contracts and procurement, a separate department to ensure that we have limited exposure for the state and its citizens, to oversee the more complex financial tools. We need to return TxDOT to what they do best, build roads.” Isett asked the staff to look at this issue.
Kolkhorst said, “There is no other agency that is looking at 50 year contracts. Last session they mentioned 70. A toll project in Chicago is 99. Our children and grandchildren will be responsible. Let other state-wide people sign off on these, like the AG, Comptroller, Governor’s Office.”
Kolkhorst also said that more information needed to be disclosed about these large contracts. She mentioned the TTC-35 contract over which TxDOT “sued to keep from going public.”
The Sunset staff presentation finished up during the noon hour, although the hearing did not break for lunch. The Commissioners worked straight through the day. After the staff members left the testimony table, their places were taken by Deirdre Delisi, the new Transportation Commissioner, and Amadeo Saenz, TxDOT executive director. I’ll cover their questioning by Sunset Commissioners in a later message.

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