Never forget that the tricksiest maneuvers in the legislative handbook come in the budget.
Texas’ prospects of having the first high-speed train line in the nation hinge on two sentences in a proposed state budget that lawmakers in the House and Senate must hash out before the end of the month.
The Senate’s budget would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any resources overseeing or regulating a privately funded attempt to connect Dallas and Houston with a bullet train.
Company officials say that will effectively kill the project because Texas Central Railway needs the state Transportation Department’s knowledge and oversight for key aspects of the project, even though it’s not seeking state funds for construction.
It was unclear Tuesday which senator on the conference committee hashing out both chambers’ budgets added the lines affecting high-speed rail projects. State, local and Texas Central officials described the addition as a backdoor attempt to mandate policy outside of public view.
“This was something that came in the dark of night and we just haven’t had a public discussion on it yet,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a major supporter of the project.
Texas Central chairman and CEO Richard Lawless said the addition of the language undercuts lawmakers’ consistent portrayal of Texas as a business-friendly state whose officials don’t hamstring private entities.
“It sends an incredibly bad signal to any private company that wants to do business in Texas,” Lawless said. “It says our process is unpredictable and it isn’t transparent.”
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairs the group of senators who will work with House counterparts to reconcile both chambers’ bills. She could not be reached late Tuesday. That conference committee of lawmakers is focused on major differences on how best to provide tax cuts. It remains unclear whether or how they’ll address the Senate’s proposed language on high-speed rail projects.
Freshman Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, isn’t on the conference committee but said he’s been talking to Nelson and other members about striking the language from the bill.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Huffines said.
As are the rail opponents, who as we know have been unable to get a bill passed to do what they want. At least this is now out in the open, so everyone knows what they’d be voting on. If this particular rider makes it through the conference committee process, it’s as good as in. If not, then that’s likely to be all she wrote. I’d say at this point that the odds slightly favor it not being part of the budget, but we won’t know for sure till we see the final product.
On a side note, Southwest Airlines reiterated their position that they haven’t taken a position on Texas Central Railway.
In fact, according to the Chronicle’s Erin Mulvaney, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said Wednesday the Dallas-based airline has not yet taken a stance on the high-speed rail line.
“We just haven’t taken a position,” Kelly said during a question-and-answer session in Houston. “I think we’ve been careful to say there are three options, for, against or neutral. We haven’t picked. We’ve got other things we are focused on, to be blunt, which probably sheds some light on my opinion.”
Kelly’s statement is similar to others the company has made since the rural opposition became more vocal.
Kelly said that during the dust-up in the 90s, the plan to build a rail required government subsidies. Kelly said private developers have the freedom to build whatever they can.
“If it’s privately funded venture, I haven’t spent any time thinking about that,” he said.
Nothing to add to that, just noting it for the record.