My afternoon at the Texas Tribune Festival

Posted in Around The State, Elections, Redistricting, Taxes, Transportation at 1:05 pm by wcnews

I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon at the Tribune Festival yesterday and was able to attend three panels.

>>> The first was Paying For Roads: The Great Debate. It was moderated by Scott Braddock. The panel was dominated by former Senate and House Transportation Committee chairs Sen. John Carona (D-Dallas) and Joe Pickett (R-El Paso). [Blockquoted excerpts and quotes are from the Trib Fest Liveblog].

Pickett started out by stating that we have a funding crisis but the people don’t know it because no one is telling them. They see road construction cones and think everything is just fine. He then went on to say that, “No one wants to raise the gas tax…..This isn’t Democrat or Republican.” And then Carona made his first points.

Sen. John Carona agreed with Pickett that roads funding is at a crisis level. He said it not only causes traffic jams but damages air quality and scares off businesses from moving to Texas.

He said part of the problem is that the state’s leadership — specifically the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House — have not led the way on addressing the problem.

“If they’re not willing to lead on those issues, my 20+ years in the Legislature have taught me it’s very hard to move forward,” Carona said.

Carona also made the point that doing nothing has a cost as well.  What he’s saying, in my opinion, is that instead of voter ID and other nonsense, transportation funding is the real emergency item. And if the people understood that they would understand the need to raise revenue to pay for transportation needs.

The other point Carona made several times was that “choices” that localities are left with actually aren’t choices at all.  He was essentially saying that toll roads or no roads is not a choice or the “free market” at work.

Panelists got into a spirited debate about toll roads. [Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority] said the Austin area is warming to toll projects and dynamic pricing in which a toll road’s price changes depending on the time of day and level of congestion.

Carona strongly disagreed.

“I think they embrace it because there isn’t an alternative,” Carona said. He suggested that too many toll road projects may be in the works. If drivers don’t have a choice but to take the toll road, the toll becomes a tax, he said.

And a much more expensive tax then raising the gas tax several pennies. Carona also made the points that private equity is the most expensive way to pay for roads and he would not recommend it.

Carona said private equity money is “expensive” and that too often TxDOT leans on private equity money to fund a project when there are cheaper approaches. TxDOT is ignoring

For example taxes and selling bonds. But most of the fireworks came toward the end when Carona accused Gov. Rick Perry of politicizing TxDOT by appointing unqualified political cronies to head the agency. Before then he said the position was always held by a qualified non-pollitical appointee.

Things got personal at the end of the panel, as Carona accused Gov. Perry of politicizing the Texas Department of Transportation by appointing “cronies” to its leadership. He said Delisi, a former Transportation Commissioner, counts as one of those “cronies.”

Delisi said TxDOT’s record over the last decade speaks for itself.

“One of the reasons txdot is ranked by CNBC as the best economy in the country is because of our infrastructure system,” Delisi said.

I don’t think Carona’s attack was personal, he was just stating his opinion on the lack of professional qualifications of the most recent leaders of TxDOT. And Delisi’s point about CNBC’s rank of TxDOT says nothing about what the people of Texas – taxpayers and drivers – think about TxDOT, where their status has really taken a hit.

My impression from the panel was that we have a transportation funding crisis and there is no easy solution. Toll roads are not the answer, either are the “creative” financing solutions. The most logical solution, though unlikely in the current political climate in Texas, is a broad based tax increase with toll roads and creative financing used rare instances.

>>> Next I attended the panel Does Texas still need the voting rights act? with Julían Aguilar moderating. Attorney Chad Dunn, Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburgh, VP of litigation for MALDEF Nina Perales, and Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton speaking.

This panel, if you can believe it, was less contentious then the transportation funding panel.  Solomons made the point over and over again that he didn’t think Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was fair, since it doesn’t apply to every state.  It only applies to a select few states and localities with a history of discrimination.  Solomons also kept making the point that the decisions made in redistrcting were political and not racial.

Solomons: “I do think the Voting Rights Acts serves a purpose … there are some things that are very subjective.”

Solomons makes case that Section 5 needs to be modified. Said it’s not fair for other states not to be subject to it when Texas is.

Solomons about the 2011 redraw: “We had 101 Republicans and we asserted power.”

Solomons about redistricting: “It’s poltical, it’s not racial.”

Solomons: “redistricitng is inherently political”

Points made by Perales and Dunn were that there is a remedy for Texas to get our of Section 5.

Perales says TX has been repeatedly rebuked by courts for violating voting rights provisions. Says TX has “consistent record” of breaking rules: “Texas is the worst of all the states.”

Dunn says there are “bailout” provisions that allow states to get out of VRA’s Section 5, but you have to prove you can “behave” and he says Texas hasn’t done that.

If they show that they no longer discriminate, “break the law”, over a period of time that can petition to be removed from Section 5 oversight. But Texas being the worst at violating Section 5 will not help them achieve the “bailout” provision.

There was more agreement then disagreement on the panel. Solomons the point several times that even though the court said there was discrimination in redistricting, the decision were made for political reasons and were not racially motivated. Which is why Dunn kept stating that the VRA will continue to be needed as long as there’s polarized political voting along racial lines. And the panel thinks that close, but were not there yet.

Perales: “I think Texas is on the cusp of being even more diverse than it is now.” She says she hopes there won’t be polarized voting anymore. That will be time to get out of Section 5. “We’ll get there. We’re on this steady march.”

>>> Next I was able to catch some of Voter ID: The Great Debate featuring state Reps. Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville, and Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. Moderated by Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a political analyst and fellow at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Much of it was a rehash of both sides arguments. Republican – protect integrity of elections. Democratic – a solution in search of a problem. First Aliseda did not believe that almost 800,000 voters would be disenfranchised, even though, as Martinez Fischer (TMF) kept pointing out, those were AG Abbott’s numbers.

The interesting part was what seemed like Aliseda’s attempt to link the issue to those on government assistance (the so-called %47).

Aliseda doubles down on why the poor, who opponents say will be disenfranchised by voter ID, can get a birth certificate to get on welfare or social security benefits. Birth certificate is required to get Texas’ free ID card to vote

Aliseda: Who is this country does not have an ID? If they are on the welfare roles, they have to have an ID. Do you know anyone that doesn’t have an ID card? They don’t exist.

“The only person that I believe doesn’t have an ID is the Unabomber,” he says.

Aliseda’s contention is completely false. I have an aunt who lives in rural Texas, same town all her life, she never got a driver’s license. To force her to get an ID to vote, where everyone in the polling place knows who she is, is idiotic. Especially, as TMF points out, when almost one third of Texas counties don’t have a DPS office.

TMF also pointed out several times there were ways for the Voter ID bill to be made to pass legal muster but the amendments were shot down by the Lege, along party lines. And there were other things that could have been done as well.

This was an emergency item (according to our governor) yet you didn’t see Perry tapping Rainy Day Fund to pay for birth certificates or free IDs for poor voters. Says voter ID was no reprehensible in court’s opinion, it was “thrown out on the first pitch.”

The law was shot down because it was too restrictive, and disenfranchises too many registered Texas voters. Texas is unlikely to have a voter ID provision until a new law is passed.

For more on how bad this law is read this, A walk through hell: My experience obtaining an approved ID to vote.

1 Comment »

  1. Eye on Williamson » TPA Blog Round Up (September 24, 2012) said,

    September 24, 2012 at 8:32 am

    […] Transportation funding, the Voting Rights Act, and voter ID. WCNews at Eye on Williamson post about My afternoon at the Texas Tribune Festival. […]

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