Senator questions will of
state officials to fix
Ogden cites problems at transportation
commissions, Houston college
February 28, 2007
Copelin, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
The chairman of the powerful Senate Finance
Committee on Tuesday questioned the collective will
of state officials to address three controversies
confronting the Legislature.
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, spotlighted fiscal
mismanagement at Texas Southern University, sexual
abuse allegations at a Texas Youth Commission
facility and the state Transportation Department's
negotiations with private developers to build a system of toll
roads. "Two of them are broken,"
Ogden told the Austin American-Statesman. "And one
is out of control."
Ogden urged that drastic
measures be taken at the youth commission and Texas
Southern, including conservatorship, a rarely used
remedy that puts control of a state agency under a
new management team.
"Fire everybody and start over," Ogden said.
As for the Transportation Department, Ogden
suggested that the Legislature curb its powers to
delegate construction and operation of a generation
of toll roads to private contractors.
The comments were extraordinary in that Ogden,
who requested the interview, seldom needs the media
to make his point. His position as chief budget
writer for the Senate usually requires no
amplification. But his comments, and the reactions
from his legislative colleagues and Gov. Rick Perry,
underscored a great divide, at least on the state's
His comments also put a spotlight on Perry,
because his appointees run the three institutions.
Ogden said he spoke out because he feared that
political opposition, albeit undefined, would make
significant change impossible.
"There's a huge political force out there saying,
'We don't care' or 'This is too embarrassing,' "
Ogden said. "What keeps the Legislature from hiding
from problems? You have to shine a spotlight on it."
He urged reporters to pay greater attention to
the three issues and pledged to use the
appropriations process to make changes.
Ogden said he is concerned about the
Transportation Department's plans to allow private
contractors, for a large upfront fee, to build roads
and charge tolls — perhaps forever. He said the
department has as many as 21 projects under
consideration, including one announced by Perry on
Tuesday in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
"Do we really want to be turning over state
highways to private contractors?" Ogden asked.
The irony is that Ogden was the Senate author of
the 2003 bill that expanded the commission's powers
to construct roads.
"I'm trying to correct the sins of the past,"
Ogden said, adding that he is considering
legislation that would end collection of tolls once
a highway has been paid for. He said he is concerned
about plans to use toll revenue, long after a
highway is paid for, to build more roads.
He said legislators are hearing from constituents
who want the agency's powers curbed.
"Every (legislative) member is paying a political
price for what they are doing," Ogden said. "TxDOT
needs to be more sensitive and accountable to the
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said senators have
had a hard time getting straight answers to basic
questions about how much Texans will be asked to pay
and where the money will go.
"Not only is TxDOT increasingly perceived as a
closed, unaccountable agency," Watson wrote in an
e-mail to constituents, "but its leadership appears
indifferent to the widespread concern over this."
Perry's office and state Rep. Mike Krusee,
chairman of the House Transportation Committee,
defended the state's toll road policy.
"The Legislature, including Sen. Ogden, had
denied our cities adequate funding for
transportation for years," said Krusee, R-Williamson
County. "If we now remove the only effective tool,
it's our cities and our citizens, not TxDOT, who
will be harmed, with more congestion, more pollution
and less economic opportunity."
He said that to abandon the state policy would
return Texas to the days of 20-year highway
Krusee's legislative district includes part of
Williamson County, which is in Ogden's Senate
Krusee noted that toll roads Texas 130, Texas 45
and the Loop 1 extension have been built since the
2003 bill that he and Ogden co-sponsored.
"It's ironic that, after the senator's district
benefited with literally billions of dollars of
projects, he would prevent other cities from
benefiting, too," Krusee said.
Perry spokesman Robert Black said Dallas-Fort
Worth officials "were ecstatic" about the toll road
He said Perry expects his appointees to be
responsive to the Legislature.
Further, he said, Perry's office is tackling
issues at Texas Southern and the youth commission.
He said Perry gave his college trustees 30 days to
come up with a plan to address the university's
wasteful spending and red ink.
As for the youth commission, Black said,
"Everybody agrees that it's an intolerable situation
that must be corrected."
But conservatorship, he said, "is the most
drastic step," Black said. "And it should be the
Texas Youth Commission: Two former
administrators at the West Texas State School for
troubled males 11 to 21 years old have been accused
of sexually abusing youths in 2004 and 2005. Sen.
Juan 'Chuy' Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said the problem is
statewide, and Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said he
thinks the agency tried to cover up the problems.
Texas Southern University: The
historically black university in Houston is asking
for $25 million in emergency appropriations because
of fiscal mismanagement. Hundreds of thousands of
dollars were spent on a former president's house
while the basements of classroom buildings flooded.
The athletic department has overspent its budget $2
million. Gov. Rick Perry has given regents 30 days
to come up with a plan to fix the problems.
Texas Department of Transportation: The
agency has steered into controversy by negotiating
agreements with private developers to build roads
and charge tolls. Its critics question the leasing
or selling of state assets to private enterprise.