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Ned Holmes

Harris County hands the Grand Parkway back to the state

Commissioners Court wants TxDOT to take over construction of the Grand Parkway.

Harris County took control of the project about 15 months ago in the belief that the Texas Department of Transportation did not have the money to build it, and that the county could come to an agreement with the state over how toll collections would be used.

Things have changed since then. First, County Judge Ed Emmett said, the Texas Transportation Commission has notified him informally that it expects to have $425 million available for the project this year.

Second, the county has not come to an agreement with the state on the use of toll revenues. The state has insisted that all toll revenue collected on the Parkway (also known as State Highway 99) needs to be spent on the Parkway itself.

The county wants to keep all the money collected on Harris County segments of the road in the county to pay for drainage projects, connector roads and other necessities the Parkway creates.

At a Transportation Commission meeting last week, Commissioner Ned Holmes said, “I think one of the challenges that Harris County faces is expending funds in counties that are not Harris County.”

[…]

“It is possible that the commission could commit some funding for Segment E in 2011,” said TxDOT spokeswoman Karen Amacker, if the county decides to give the Parkway project back to the state.

“We do believe that it is an important high-priority project, not just for the Houston area but for the entire state,” she said.

And I think it’s a terrible boondoggle that’s primarily going to hugely subsidize development in currently unpopulated areas. Why that’s a better idea than working to improve the parts of town where the people actually live remains a mystery to me. This story was written before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, at which they officially approved the plan. Let’s just say I’ll be hoping that there’s enough chaos in the Lege to make TxDOT lower the priority on this. Houston Tomorrow and KUHF have more.

Holmes fibs about his donation history to Hotze

As we know, Ned Holmes, the finance chair for the Gene Locke campaign, made a $20,000 donation to Steven Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Harris County PAC just before Hotze sent out his homophobic mailer to voters. Holmes claims that the timing is coincidental because he’s a longtime supporter of Hotze. How that’s supposed to make me feel better about the Locke-Hotze relationship is unclear, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s also not true.

Reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, however, show that prior to his Nov. 24 contribution of $20,000, Holmes had donated to the PAC only once in the past eight years. He made a $2,000 contribution on April 20, 2000. Holmes denied to Olson that his most recent contribution was connected to the mail piece.

Well, I guess that one donation in 2000 was a long time ago. And maybe he always intended to be a once-every-9.5-years kind of longtime supporter. Which he kept secret from everyone, including his candidate. Yeah, that must be it.

Rick Casey is not impressed.

According to Hotze’s report, his committee was flat broke as of three weeks ago. Since then he raised $56,000, of which $40,000 came from Locke’s two backers.

Hotze’s report shows about $9,700 in expenses for the mailing in November and a balance of $44,285 in the bank.

I hope there are some unpaid bills for the mailer. I don’t want it on Locke’s conscience if his backers inadvertently bankrolled Hotze’s next hit piece.

I think Nick Anderson sums it up the best. I’ll just leave it at that. Nancy Sims has a few related words.

Taking taxation aversion to its logical extreme

This story just boggles my mind.

Think traffic congestion is bad now? Wait until 2012.

That’s when Texas’ highway fund — which relies on a motor fuels tax that hasn’t been raised since 1991 — will be out of money for new construction contracts, according to state senators and transportation officials urging action now on new funding options.

“The course we’re on will result in no new roads in Texas in the very near future,” Sen. John Carona, Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee chairman, said Wednesday.

To try to address the problem, the Texas Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval 23-8 to a bill by Carona, R-Dallas, to allow local-option elections in regions around the state to raise fees or taxes for local projects.

The bill in question is SB855.

While lawmakers consider the issue, Texas Transportation Commission member Ned Holmes of Houston said the state motor fuels tax has dipped even as the population increased.

Not only will funding for new construction contracts be gone in 2012, money for maintenance of existing roads will be insufficient, leaders said.

“There will be no new capacity money after about 2012,” Holmes said. “None. … So we have this growing population, we have an increasing average mile per gallon in the fleet (motor vehicles) and we have a fixed gasoline tax. There is no way that we can fund the needs that we have with this formula.”

The state also gets federal money and uses bonds to fund roads, but several senators said continued reliance on debt isn’t sustainable.

The 20-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax that fuels the highway fund, meanwhile, hasn’t been raised since 1991, and there appears little appetite to do so this session.

I can understand to some extent the reluctance to raise the gas tax, or ideally to index it to inflation. I think it’s lousy that that’s off the table, but it is the political reality, and it’s why we wind up with crazy privatized toll road schemes and convoluted local option bills like this one. It’s very basic – we need new roads, we need to maintain and improve the roads we already have, and we need to find the money to do these things, because the revenue source we have, which we refuse to enhance, is inadequate. It doesn’t get more basic than this.

And yet the idea that the government may need more money to do something as basic and necessary as build and maintain roads is enough to get the usual crowd of taxophobes into a lather.

Opponents included Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who voiced concern that county officials would have the opportunity “to tax their citizens and tax their citizens and tax their citizens.”

GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who will have the opportunity to sign or veto the bill if it passes the House, is committed to working with Carona on transit issues but “has strong concerns about the host of significant tax increases,” said his spokeswoman, Allison Castle.

Hold that thought for a second while we read more about those diabolical tax increases here:

The bill, which will need a state constitutional amendment as well to go into effect, would allow county commissioners in the Metroplex, Central Texas, Bexar County and a few other spots to call elections asking voters for permission to raise one or more of six fees or taxes. This includes up to a 10-cent-a-gallon local gasoline tax.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation and some other conservatives oppose the bill. Although it doesn’t raise taxes, instead allowing others (well, voters really) to make that decision, an aspiring politician could argue in a future Republican primary that the Legislature was part of a multi-part scheme to raise taxes. Convoluted perhaps, but enough to have spooked Dewhurst and some other Republicans.

Okay, so before some dastardly county official gets to tax, tax, tax his citizens, first the citizens of Texas must vote to approve a constitutional amendment, which had to be approved by a two-thirds majority in each chamber. Once all that is done, the citizens who are going to be taxed, taxed, taxed would then have to vote in a special election to impose those new taxes, taxes, taxes on themselves. How much more public input is needed here?

The mindset just confounds me. I mean, either you think there’s no legitimate way to impose a tax, or you think there’s some magic alternate way to fund this need that somehow won’t be borne by the citizens. I suppose you could favor toll roads for all new construction, financed by bonds to be paid off by toll revenues, but what about existing roads? Do the Dan Patricks and the Rick Perrys have an alternate plan, or do they think none is necessary because it’ll all take care of itself? Burka and Eye on Williamson have more.

UPDATE: You may have noticed that Harris County is not part of SB855, which is a curious omission. Burka notes the reason for that:

What [Harris County officials] didn’t want was to give Senator Dan Patrick a platform for opposing the bill on the Senate floor. So the decision was made that the Houston region will be included when the bill reaches the House floor, by an amendment, probably authored by Wayne Smith.

Just call him Sen. Dan “Needs to be worked around, not worked with” Patrick. Really says a lot, doesn’t it?