Senate Finance Committee Holds Joint Hearing with Senate Transportation Committee to Question TxDOT Shortfall

(AUSTIN) — The Senate Finance and Transportation Committees today (Tuesday) held a joint hearing to investigate the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) claim that it does not have sufficient funds to continue adding lanes and building new highways in Texas.

Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, joined 19 members of the two committees to question officials from the Legislative Budget Board (LBB), the State Auditor’s office, and TxDOT regarding TxDOT’s claim that it no longer has necessary funding to continue work on public roads, though it continues to spend tax money to support toll projects.

“I am dismayed that the legislature didn’t receive accurate information regarding TxDOT spending,” said Senator Zaffirini. “It is crucial that we get to the bottom of this, as projects across the state, including in Senate District 21, are being delayed or cancelled.”

During the 80th Legislative Session funding was appropriated at the level TxDOT requested, and it became apparent later that the agency over-planned and committed to too many projects.

After Amadeo Saenz, TxDOT Executive Director, admitted that the problem was caused by poor planning and said the agency accepted responsibility for the problem, Senator Zaffirini reprimanded agency representatives for being “intellectually dishonest with the public.”

In 2007 the Texas Legislature increased TxDOT’s funding by $1.1 billion to $16.7 billion, a 6.3 percent increase.

“Their problem,” Senator Zaffirini said, “is that they planned poorly and disregarded legislative intent. Many of us believe that this is a ploy to pressure legislators to approve toll roads.”

She produced a “TxDOT Point Paper” dated Dec. 5, 2007, that listed five factors for TxDOT’s cash flow problem:

First, the agency blamed the U.S. Congress and the “uncertainty of federal funds.” This includes a projection that the Federal Highway Trust Fund “will go $4 billion in the negative in 2009″, current rescissions in previously promised contract authority of $666 million for Texas and a potential $950 million in rescissions by 2009.

Second, the agency blamed the legislature for moving state transportation dollars to pay for other state priorities and for imposing a broad moratorium on “certain financing tools,” an obvious reference to toll roads.

Finally, the agency blamed inflation and increased maintenance needs.

Senator Zaffirini stressed that the talking points never expressed the agency’s responsibility or remorse for causing the problem.

Senate Finance will continue to work with agency representatives, the State Auditor’s Office, and the Legislative Budget Board throughout the interim to improve the agency’s internal controls.

“We must restore faith in the information that TxDOT presents to us as we prepare for the 2009 session to ensure that these type of problems do not happen again,” Senator Zaffirini said.

Senate Higher Education Subcommittee Receives Interim Charges

(AUSTIN) — Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst on Tuesday (Jan. 29) issued interim charges for all Senate committees, including the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee chaired by Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

The Higher Education Subcommittee is charged with looking at ways to improve quality, increase affordability, and expand access to higher education. The charges include examining different methodologies for assessing the quality of degree and certificate programs at higher education institutions and for measuring student learning outcomes, reviewing the method for measuring graduation rates to determine whether alternative measures are more appropriately suited for institutions with a large percentage of non-traditional students, examining ways to assess and improve academic advising to help students succeed in higher education and complete their course of study and graduate in the minimum time required, and studying research funding and assess the research infrastructure and capabilities at higher education institutions.

“I am delighted that Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst issued these substantive and important charges that will enable the subcommittee to develop important policies related to higher education,” said Senator Zaffirini, the second-highest ranking senator and the highest-ranking senator for Bexar County and the border region. “This subcommittee will play an important role in improving higher education in Texas as a result.”

As vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee during the 2007 regular session, Senator Zaffirini was instrumental in drafting a balanced budget while restoring funding for critical health and human services programs. She was one of five senators on the Appropriations Conference Committee who wrote the state’s final appropriations bill and is one of four on the Legislative Budget Board that is co-chaired by Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst and Speaker Tom Craddick. The LBB has budget execution authority during the interim, along with the governor.

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Senator Zaffirini Visits Women in Education Group

(Karnes City) — Senator Judith Zaffirini today (Saturday) met with the Gamma Omicron chapter of The Delta Kappa Gamma Society International. Members from Bee, Karnes, and Live Oak counties asked the Senator to share with them how to communicate more effectively with elected officials regarding legislative matters. She also shared her legislative agenda regarding education with the group.

The Delta Kappa Gamma Society International promotes professional and personal growth of women educators and excellence in education. The Gamma Omicron chapter has a membership of 70 women who live throughout South Texas.

“The success of public education in Texas depends on collaboration,” Senator Zaffirini said. “I strongly encourage educational leaders at all levels to participate in the legislative process, and I am especially proud of the motivation and involvement of these local educators.”

One of the seven purposes of the international organization is to inform the members of current economic, social, political and educational issues so that they may participate effectively in a world society. Senator Zaffirini hopes that her visit with the chapter will serve to inspire local women leaders to participate in and contribute to the legislative process in the future.

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