Here is the third message about what went on at the Sunset Commission hearing on TxDOT. So much valuable information came from public testimony, that I have divided this material into two parts. This message will cover the testimony through part of Terri Hall’s important presentation. There will be a fourth message beginning with the remainder of Hall’s testimony to the end of the hearing. There was more interesting material from the public that I have not covered. The Sunset Commissioners listened to all of it and received longer written documentation from many people who made brief oral comments.
Testimony from groups and citizens from all around the state
Chairman Isett commented that 80 people were signed up to speak. Testifiers included representatives from trade associations related to transportation, public interest groups, and individuals from as far away as Denton, Houston, Corpus Christi, New Braunfels, and San Antonio.
Organizations that sent representatives included the Texas Farm Bureau, Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, Houston Chapter of the Sierra Club, Scenic Texas, Citizens Transportation Coalition, and the Gulf Coast Institute.
People representing Central Texas organizations that have been active against toll roads and the Corridor included Carol Cespedes and Beki Halpin from Fix 290 in Oak Hill and Agnes Voges of the Blackland Coalition (Bell and Williamson counties).
Representatives of state-wide groups that have been fighting the Corridor for years testified, including David and Linda Stall, Corridor Watch; Linda Curtis, state director of Independent Texans; and Richard Reeves, Texas Toll Party.
Bill Molina, independent filmmaker with Storm Productions, testified, filmed the hearing, and has provided a short recap.
Molina is working on a new Corridor film that will be an update to his first Corridor documentary, “Truth Be Tolled.” For more details, visit his website www.truthbetolled.com.
Intimidation of citizens by TxDOT
One of the individuals testifying was Minda McGuire from the San Antonio area, who recounted an incident from a 281 toll road meeting where former Transportation Chair Ric Williamson almost had a man arrested. A citizen wished to face the audience, and Williamson commanded the man to face him, Williamson. When the citizen stayed turned toward the audience, Williamson ordered officers to take hold of the man’s arms and turn him around to face Williamson.
This story reminded Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of a TTC-69 hearing in Grimes County where the consulting firm that arranged the hearing hired over 20 DPS officers to handle security (which was unnecessary), an occurrence that made some citizens afraid to testify. Later in this Sunset hearing, a woman from Kolkhorst’s district expanded on that story. She spoke of the intimidation factor of having unfamiliar faces from the DPS acting as security. She said they tried to “set aside the Sheriff’s authority,” but the Sheriff reminded them that he was in charge. She described the Corridor itself and the process of foisting it on the people as “a deep wound in rural Texas.”
TxDOT’s “damning testimony” provided by TURF’s Terri Hall
Terri Hall, of TURF, began her testimony by asking to show a short video deposition of TxDOT officials obtained through TURF’s lawsuit of TxDOT’s illegal lobbying and advocacy. The Sunset Commission denied her request, but said they would look at their copies, which Hall provided to them. She said it is “very damning testimony as it pertains to lobbying.”
To see this video, go to www.texasturf.org and click on “TxDOT’s top brass commit perjury.” You can see portions of depositions of Executive Director Saenz, Director of Government and Public Affairs Division Coby Chase, and Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton. Short clips of these officials publically advocating for toll roads and the Corridor are interspersed with their sworn testimony denying that they have ever advocated for toll roads and the Corridor.
Regarding TURF’s lawsuit against TxDOT, when Chairman Delisi had been asked about it during her questioning, she simply said it had been dismissed. Terri Hall clarified the status of the lawsuit: “Our case isn’t dead, it’s on appeal.” The lawsuit has turned up TxDOT documents that state that the goal of the Keep Texas Moving (KTM) campaign is “to shift perception among those who are opposed to or on the fence about the TTC” and to change the political environment to “make it less hostile to the TTC” and to promote the “benefits of TTC and help inoculate it from negative attacks.”
Hall testified that the KTM campaign is “a taxpayer-funded political ad campaign, which is not only illegal, but it also abuses the taxpayers in order to line TxDOT’s pockets.” In addition, TxDOT hired five registered lobbyists for $100,000 per month to directly push CDA’s and the TTC to Congress and other elected officials.
Kolkhorst followed up on the KTM campaign, asking Saenz if it was tax dollars, and he answered yes. Saenz said he didn’t think TxDOT had spent $100,000 per month on the lobbyists. She then asked Coby Chase, TxDOT Director of Government and Public Affairs, about the $100,000. “Could you tell us how much money you are spending yearly on KTM and lobbyists?” She never really got a straight answer to this question. Chase said that TxDOT had spent $4.5 million from June, 2007, to February, 2008. Kolkhorst asked, “What about the $9 million?” [the publicized cost of the KTM campaign] Again, not receiving a direct answer, she then asked Chase, “Do you believe you have the ability in statute to advocate?” Chase: “No, Ma’am.”
Public member McMahen said, “I am shocked at how hard it is for these legislators to get answers out of an agency that has to get its funding from them.”
The next (fourth) report on the Sunset TxDOT hearing will begin with more dynamite testimony from TURF’s Terri Hall and will cover the remainder of the public testimony.