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Endorsement watch: When nothing is something

The Texas Farm Bureau endorses no one in the Governor’s race.

The Texas Farm Bureau, which has feuded with Rick Perry over toll roads and private-property rights, opted Wednesday not to endorse anybody in the governor’s race.

The decision was the first time the Farm Bureau’s political committee has not backed the Republican nominee for governor since it began making endorsements in 1990.

Spokesman Gene Hall said the bureau’s Friends of Agriculture Fund voted to stay neutral.

Democrat Bill White’s campaign hailed the decision as a victory.

“Bill White is committed to private property rights, while Perry’s spent years obsessed with the corrupt land grab of the Trans-Texas Corridor,” said spokeswoman Katy Bacon.

I figure stuff like this is the result of Perry’s “screw everybody except the base” strategy. I mean, it should be a no-brainer for him to get the Farm Bureau endorsement. Other than the occasional conservative, ag-friendly, incumbent Democrat, they endorse Republicans. Sure, they had a falling out with Perry over eminent domain in 2007 and the TTC before that, but they still have a lot in common, and there’s no reason why Perry couldn’t have found some way to win them back. You have to wonder how many people Perry can kick out of his circle before his circle becomes too small for him to win. He seems determined to find out, that’s for sure.

Senate passes TxDOT sunset bill, red light cameras not dead yet

The Senate approved its version of HB300, the TxDOT sunset bill, and as expected it has some major differences from the House version.

Plans to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects in North Texas progressed Monday night as the Senate approved a massive transportation bill that gives counties authority to ask voters to endorse higher gas taxes or other fees.

The bill, approved 22-9, would also end the state’s authority to create privately operated and financed toll roads, though that provision could easily be changed, or even eliminated, before the bill becomes law.

A version of the bill passed this month by the House does not include the tax proposal, a fact that could spell trouble for the entire bill. The House bill would impose far more changes on the Texas Department of Transportation. The chambers will have to negotiate a compromise on the bill.

An amendment to kill red-light cameras in Texas also passed 16-15, but was later withdrawn after two senators changed their minds. The House had already voted to kill the cameras, which several Dallas-area cities use.

Matt Stiles blogged Monday morning about a possible option to let those caught by red light cameras take a defensive driving course to get out of paying the fine. It’s unclear to me if this provision is in the Senate version of the bill. The close vote on the cameras, and the fact that a couple of Senators changed their minds, suggests the possibility that the ban could be added back into the conference committee version of the bill. For now, though, they live.

The local tax provision would let counties in Texas’ five largest metropolitan areas call tax elections as soon as 2010. Voters would be asked to approve a range of new fees and taxes, possibly including a 10-cent per gallon fuel tax increase.

Peggy Fikac notes that this also includes the possibility of up to a $60 increase for vehicle registration fees and up to a $24 increase for driver licenses’ fees that could be used for transportation projects. All would have to be approved by voters.

Dallas-area planners have said their first priority for the new funds, which could total $500 million or more per year, will be to expand suburban rail lines, though legal hurdles to using all of the new funds for that purpose must still be cleared.

Sure would be nice to have some funds like that available for commuter rail here, wouldn’t it? I have a hard time seeing any ballot-proposition tax or fee increases to fund that getting passed, unfortunately.

In the Senate version of the bill, the Texas Department of Transportation would retain its current governance structure – comprising five commissioners appointed by the governor – and its authority to have the biggest say over which roads will be built and when.

The Senate bill would reduce transportation commissioners’ terms from six years to two, however.

So no elections for TxDOT commissioners. I know there were logistical issues with that, and that rural counties likely would have gotten the short end of the stick, but I still think it was a worthwhile idea to explore. Maybe some other time. For now, the next step is the real sausage-making, also known as the conference committee. They’ll need to hurry, and Lord knows nothing can go wrong when that happens. Keep an eye on this one. Postcards has more.

Windstorm insurance bill passes House committee

I’ve mentioned the prospect of a special session several times lately. One of the issues that could be the cause of a special session is windstorm insurance, as the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association took it on the chin last year thanks to Hurricane Ike. Governor Perry even came to the floor of the House yesterday to threaten that he’d call a special session for June 2, the day after sine die, if a bill didn’t get passed. Apparently, that was enough to make something happen.

Windstorm insurance reform legislation suddenly got voted out of a House committee Wednesday after Gov. Rick Perry threatened to call a special session on June 2 if the bill does not pass.

Both inland and coastal lawmakers expressed concerns about the bill they voted on, but said they needed to get something to a House/Senate conference committee if there is any hope of reaching a compromise to avoid a special session.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, complained that he was being forced to vote on a 51-page bill that he had not read. He said the House has had the entire session to work on a compromise and now was being presented a “false choice” of voting on an unseen bill or having it die in the Legislature’s closing crunch.

“The House is on fire! Let’s vote it out,” Martinez Fischer said.

“I don’t care what you do. If you want to vote it down, vote it down,” replied House Insurance Committee Chairman John Smithee, R-Amarillo.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, joined Martinez Fischer in voting against the bill, also complaining that she had not had a chance to read it.

“I’m not trying to slow the process down, but don’t I have a right to read this stuff?” Thompson asked.

Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, urged his fellow committee members to vote for the bill just to keep it moving and not let it die. He said there are many things in it that still bother him.

“We have been told we will be called into a special session on June 2 if we do not get this matter resolved,” Hunter said. “Get the process moving so we do not kill the issue.”

The bill in question is SB14, which was approved by the Senate on April 30, but which has been revised since then. One hopes everyone will have the time to read the bill before it gets voted on again, not that this has ever been a requirement for getting stuff passed; if it were, we might never have heard the words “Trans Texas Corridor”. One also hopes that this bill will be given priority over clearly less-important things like voter ID. Finally, one hopes that this is the only thing that’s on Governor Perry’s list of reasons for which to call a special session, and not just the cudgel of the day. I don’t want the Lege to come back this summer any more than they do.

The Senate TxDOT sunset bill is not the House TxDOT sunset bill

As we know, the massive House sunset bill for TxDOT, HB300, contained a boatload of amendments that greatly altered the original bill, including one that would make TxDOT a 15-member elected commission and one that would have outlawed red light cameras. As I suggested, however, the Senate version of this bill would look quite a bit different. Here’s a brief overview of that.

[T]he Senate version laid out in committee this morning (after the House last week passed a version festooned with 177 amendments) does not have the 15-member elected Texas Transportation Commission. It would stick with the current five-member commission appointed by the governor. Mostly. The difference from current law is that the members would have two-year terms and, if the governor didn’t reappoint them or name a new one by Feb. 28 of odd-numbered years, the appointment would then fall to the lieutenant governor.

There are of course myriad other differences, all of them presented in a 70-page “side-by-side-by-side-by-side” that compares current law, the original Senate version, the passed House version and the current Senate version.

Another difference between the House and this Senate version: Red-light cameras would remain legal under the Senate version. The House zapped it. Senate sponsor state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said that while he personally opposes red-light cameras, there’s enough support for them among other senators that that’s not something he wants to take on.

As for the key underlying issue — whether TxDOT would be neutered, as in the House version, by giving real power over project decisions to local planning organizations — Hegar said his current version does not do that.

The “legislative oversight committee” for TxDOT recommended by the Texas Sunset Review Commission is different between the two bodies. The House would have an eight-member group of House and Senate members, including the chairs of the transportation, finance and appropriations committees. The Senate version basically uses the existing committee structure, having the House and Senate transportation committees meet as a group once a quarter to look over TxDOT’s shoulder.

So there you have it. It’s still early on, and we haven’t gotten to the conference committee yet, so consider all of this to be written on water until a final bill emerges. Given that the only other bill I knew of to kill red light cameras never made it to the House floor, I’d say the odds are good we’ll have them to kick around for a little longer. But as always, it ain’t over till it’s over.