Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sunset Commissioners question Delisi, Saenz

. . . a continuation of the report on the July 15 Sunset Commission Hearing on TxDOT. The first message covered the presentation by the Sunset staff. This message covers the questioning of the new Transportation Commissioner Deirdre Delisi and TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz. Both Delisi and Saenz started out with statements, generally expressing their willingness to work with the legislators to make some changes in TxDOT. In addition to Delisi, two more—Bill Meadows and Ted Houghton—of the five Transportation Commissioners were in attendance.

Sunset Chairman Carl Isett said to Delisi that she needed to realize that legislators had gotten “skeptical of hearing ‘they’re working on it,’” when they asked questions about things they had asked TxDOT to do. Delisi responded, “We realize that changes need to be made, that there are expectations from the Commission that the agency will follow through.”

Isett discussed past TxDOT behavior of “retaliation and retribution. Now it’s a different game. We are interested in significant reform. We are thinking about significant changes in structure.” He said emphatically to Delisi, “You must show complete resolve.”

Sen. Glenn Hegar mentioned his disappointment with two TxDOT actions related to the TTC-69 Corridor. TxDOT first announced they were scaling back TTC-69 plans to follow existing highways, followed shortly by the announcement that TxDOT had awarded the contract for the Comprehensive Development Agreement (CDA) for TTC-69. This was a continuing example of TxDOT saying it would do what the public and legislators wanted, then going against the express will of the Legislature.

Hegar also asked if TxDOT had terminated the employee responsible for the $1 billion accounting error. Saenz said no, and Hegar told him, “Somebody has got to be accountable.”

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown asked Delisi about TxDOT’s lobbying in Washington, including the T2 situation. Even after being sued by TURF over using taxpayer money for illegal advocacy activities, TxDOT joined a lobbying organization called Transportation Transformation (T2) that included private financing firms like Goldman Sachs. T2 lobbied the U.S. Congress on behalf of the private CDA’s.

Delisi responded that TxDOT’s goal was the interests of Texas rather than private business. Harper-Brown followed up: So TxDOT won’t be promoting investment groups? Delisi said no. Harper-Brown said that she had not been happy to find out about the T2 lobbying: “. . . something I’d never heard of—Texas promoting Public Private Partnerships. That is totally inappropriate.”

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst addressed Delisi: “With the previous Commissioner there seemed to be an agenda. Do you have an agenda toward private equity? Do we really start with a clean slate?” Delisi responded that her agenda was to deliver the best transportation system.

Kolkhorst told Delisi about relationships in the past: “It’s how we have been treated. I don’t want to be mad anymore.” Staring intently at Delisi, Kolkhorst said, “You must rebuild trust.”

revisited the points about TTC-69 that Hegar had made. TxDOT pulled back, then announced the CDA. Kolkhorst said strongly, “It was not like the staff said, not a miscommunication. We said stop!” [meaning the legislature’s moratorium on CDA’s]

She then asked about TURF’s lawsuit against TxDOT. Delisi said only, “It has been dismissed by the court.” This was not a fully responsive answer, and it was brought up later in the public testimony by TURF’s Terri Hall.

Kolkhorst said that TxDOT had been manipulative with legislators. “Glenn [Hegar] and I, we could bring [former representative] Robby Cook in here, and you wouldn’t believe the stories we could tell you.”

Rep. Dan Flynn asked, “Why are no Transportation Commissioners here? This is a pretty important meeting.” Someone said that two couldn’t be here and that two were there for at least part of the time.

By this time, it was 3:30 p.m., and Isett announced that public testimony would begin, and that there would be a three minute time limit.

Although Delisi and Saenz stayed for the whole hearing, and were called back a few times to answer points brought up by citizens, most TxDOT people left. Harper-Brown noticed: “The TxDOT contingent left. Are they coming back to listen to the public testimony? One of the issues here is lack of communication.”

There is so much material that came out of this Sunset hearing that I will finish up with a third message that will cover the public testimony. Some of the material presented contradicted previous TxDOT explanations, and Delisi and Saenz were called back to explain discrepancies, which led to some interesting exchanges, to be covered in a later entry.

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