Friday, July 20, 2007

Perry reiterates toll road support

Governor tells builders the need for road funds will overcome critics
By RAD SALLEE - Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2007

AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry told road builders at the Texas Transportation Forum here Thursday that he stands firm in his support for toll roads and public-private partnerships despite some setbacks in the past legislative session.

"When you have big dreams," he said, people tell you, "You can't get there from here. But I assure you we can get there from here, and we're going to get there together."

Perry said traditional sources of road funding — "a trickle of federal funds and a gas tax that few legislators would even think of raising" — aren't nearly enough to meet the state's needs.

"There isn't even enough money to maintain our current system," he said.

And the fuel tax "has problems on its face," he said. Unlike toll roads, which typically have a free alternative, fuel taxes are paid by all drivers, and hit rural residents hardest.

"The boys out in Lubbock, Odessa and Marfa really don't see the benefit
in it for them,"
he said.

"If we don't build roads with innovative financing and tolls, roads are not going to be built in our state," he said.

Driving the private sector

Perry said even the prospect of the state contracting with the private sector to build and operate toll roads is paying off.

"Projects that local toll road authorities would not have bid on a few years ago are now attracting very strong interest because private companies are now competing to build those same projects," he said.

This was an apparent reference to the North Texas Tollway Authority's offer to pay the state $3.3 billion to build and operate for profit in a 50-year lease, a segment of Texas 121 in the Dallas area. The offer topped a previous $2.8 billion bid from the Spanish firm Cintra.

"They may never say it," Perry said of lawmakers opposed to such long-term public-private toll partnerships, "but the Legislature admitted we were on the right track.

"While they were calling for a moratorium on toll roads, on one hand, they were insisting on toll road projects in their own districts because their constituents wanted to see things moving. They wanted to see those roads built."
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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Judge who didn't report campaign finances fined - Democrat who has said he opposes fundraising must pay $38,000

By MICHAEL GRABELL - The Dallas Morning News - Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Dallas civil court judge has been sanctioned by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to file campaign finance reports in the 2006 election. And now the Texas attorney general and a state judge are demanding that he pay $38,000 in fines and court fees.

Judge Bruce Priddy, one of 42 Democratic judges elected in Dallas County in November, has said that he is philosophically opposed to the idea of judges asking people for money. He did not return calls Tuesday, but he said in February that he didn't think he had to file reports because he didn't raise any money.

The judge has since held a fundraiser in which lawyers were invited to hear a polka band and dance the hokey pokey. It's unclear how much he raised at that event because he didn't file the report due Monday, according to the ethics commission.

"Our concern here is the fact that he owes this money to the state of Texas and the fact that he has ignored a judge's order," said Tom Kelley, a spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott's office.

Elected officials and political candidates are required to file campaign finance reports to show the public who gives them money and how they spend it.

Because Texans elect their judiciary, it's important for judges to comply with the law, said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that tracks campaign donations.

"Half or more of their money historically comes from people who have cases in their courtrooms, which presents a horrible conflict of interest," he said. "Disclosure is the best tool we have for accountability."

Judge Priddy was fined $30,500 for failing to file four reports between July 17, 2006, and Jan. 16. The attorney general sued him in Travis County in April.

But Judge Priddy never responded to the lawsuit, and State District Judge John Dietz granted the state a default judgment, ordering the Dallas judge to pay the $30,500 fine and $7,500 in attorney's fees and court costs.

Tim Sorrells, spokesman for the ethics commission, said Judge Priddy hasn't responded to state officials.

"We send a notice to file the report to all the filers, and if the report is late, we send them a late notice," he said. "If the report is still not filed, we'll send a notice saying that we're going to refer it to the attorney general's office."

The state has the option of freezing the judge's bank accounts if the fines aren't paid. And he could face discipline from the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Judge Priddy's situation is similar to that of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Paul Womack, who said he raised so little money in his 2002 campaign that "the public interest was not significantly harmed by the delay" in filing seven required reports.

The judicial conduct commission publicly condemned Judge Womack after he told the commission he had attention deficit disorder and a procrastination problem.

During the campaign, friends and colleagues described Judge Priddy as one of the most ethical and upstanding candidates – someone who avoided almost all politicking to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest.

In 2002, while still an attorney, he donated nearly $400,000 to agencies that help the homeless after winning a verdict for thousands of apartment residents who were overcharged for water, according to an article on the state bar Web site.

"I really think it's a philosophical issue with him," said Darlene Ewing, chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party. "He thinks the judiciary should be totally free of campaign contributions."

Regardless of intentions, Ms. Ewing said, she expects all Democratic officeholders to file the reports.

Judge Priddy has had other problems since taking office. For several weeks in April, the State Bar of Texas, which licenses lawyers, listed him as suspended for failing to complete his legal education requirements.

But it turned out that the judge just hadn't filled out the correct form to change his status from lawyer to judge.

Despite the judge's statements against raising money, he did hold a fundraiser after the election.

His Web site invited the public to "blow out" the campaign season at "the one and only" fundraiser for Judge Priddy. The March 6 event at the Hickory Street Annex near Fair Park featured the polka band Brave Combo and "upscale festival food with cold beer."

"Where else can you mingle with the greatest legal minds in the area AND do the hokey pokey?" the invitation read. "Guaranteed to be the most fun you have ever had at a judicial candidate fundraiser!"

"Of course, any contributions would be appreciated, but $ is not necessary," the Web site said.
Staff writer Diane Jennings contributed to this report
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Regional Transportation Council's chairman slowing down to speed things up

By O.K. CARTER - Star-Telegram Staff Writer - Thu, Jul. 05, 2007
North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino is only 30 days into his role as chairman of the Regional Transportation Council, but he's already discovered that leading the council resembles herding whales: It takes a while, and some whales always wander off in new directions.

Last month's vote to recommend a builder and operator of a future Texas 121 toll road, for example, was 27-10 in favor of the North Texas Tollway Authority, with some of the 10 voicing adamant opposition. Regional transportation issues rarely achieve consensus because interests and needs are so varied.

The council, part of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, is the chief planning agent for future regional transportation needs: highway improvements, toll roads, regional passenger rail and the like. The regional council's 40 members include elected or appointed officials from 16 Metroplex counties, as well as representatives from transportation planners like The T or Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Nothing big in regional transit happens without the regional council's endorsement.

"The process of getting things done in regional transportation is miserably slow, like watching grass grow," the thrice-elected North Richland Hills mayor jokes. It helps that he's also a civil engineer and highway construction expert.

It's already obvious that Trevino's style is to speed up by slowing down, giving council members plenty of time to get their say. His first meeting ran almost four hours. It's a hypothesis that long meetings equal faster projects.

"Letting members have their say and having open civil discussions may result in meetings going a little long," Trevino concedes. "But when everybody can present positions and have them openly debated, even members that don't get things 100 percent their way will know that we hashed it out and gave them a fair shake."Trevino knows that at the same time, the clock is ticking on transportation issues and speeding up projects is crucial.

A recent census study revealed that the percentage of people commuting to work in a vehicle by themselves actually increased by 2 percent over the past five years. The population of the Metroplex is projected to increase 3.5 million over the next three decades.

"More cars and people add to pollution and congestion problems," he said.

Trevino's watch as council chairman did not begin on a cheerful note. A pitch to the Legislature to allow Metroplex residents to vote on a half-cent sales tax to fund regional passenger rail was essentially ignored.

"If transportation planning moves slow, the Legislature moves even slower," Trevino said. "If you want something done in one session, you have to introduce it an earlier session. Basically, all we're asking is that the Legislature allow voters here to make that call."

Without the tax, Trevino sees no way to fund regional rail, which is why one of the top two priorities of his council term will be to organize a more focused and determined legislative lobbying effort two years from now to get lawmakers to allow a vote on a tax.

The other priority? When he hands over his gavel to a new chairman in 11 months, Trevino would love it if the tollway authority had resolved not only the 121 issue, but had also established firm timetables for toll road projects, including a widening of Texas 360 in southeast Tarrant (Arlington/Mansfield), Texas 171 in north Fort Worth and north Tarrant County, and the Southwest Parkway. He'd also like the tollway authority to pick up the pace on a George Bush Freeway extension and the Dallas Trinity Parkway project.

"It's also obvious that [the Texas Department of Transportation] is going to have to recognize that it's going to have to take care of some mobility issues without assistance from tolls, including problems on I-35, Loop 820, S.H.183 and the downtown funnel," Trevino said, though with a proviso: He favors construction of toll-funded express lanes on 820.

That's much to do with less than a year to do it.

O.K. Carter's column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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Food Imports Don't Get Enough Oversight by U.S., Lawmakers Say

By Justin Blum - Bloomberg - Tue., Jul 17, 2007
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't have enough staff to protect Americans from tainted food imports, lawmakers and congressional investigators said.
The FDA inspects less than 1 percent of imported food and takes samples of only a fraction of those products, said Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of a House panel holding a food-safety hearing today in Washington. The FDA plans to close seven of 13 labs that inspect food as well as other imports, posing new dangers, he said.

The FDA is under criticism from lawmakers who say the agency didn't do enough to protect the public from contaminated spinach last year and tainted peanut butter and pet food this year. The agency also was slow to react to contaminated seafood from China being shipped to the U.S., they said.

``FDA's food-safety program is woefully understaffed,'' said Stupak, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. ``Entry reviewers, investigators and compliance officers simply cannot keep up with the flood of imported food.''

The FDA shouldn't go forward with plans to consolidate labs, said David Nelson, an investigator with the Energy and Commerce Committee, during the hearing. The agency hasn't provided proof that the closures would save money, he said.

In San Francisco, four reviewers oversee thousands of shipments of products regulated by the FDA every day, according to a report by committee investigators released at the hearing. In a typical day, an FDA reviewer examines one entering line of food and other products every 30 seconds, the report said.

`Fragmented, Understaffed'

``The Federal food-safety system is in dire need of reform: It is fragmented, understaffed, inefficient, and lagging in state-of-the-art tracking systems,'' said John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan and chairman of the Energy and Commerce panel, at the hearing. ``FDA has largely abdicated its regulatory role to the food industry itself, which is expected to police itself.''

The FDA has ``done a great deal'' to protect the U.S. food supply from contamination, said Andrew von Eschenbach, the agency's commissioner, in prepared testimony. The FDA is working to develop new strategies designed to bolster the country's food safety system, he said.
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20.5M decisions to classify documents

By PETE YOST - Associated Press Writer - Mon Jul 16, 2007

WASHINGTON - There were 20.5 million decisions to classify government secrets last year, and a report to the president found serious shortcomings in the process.

The Information Security Oversight Office said more than 1 in 10 documents it reviewed lacked a basis for classification, "calling into question the propriety" of the decisions to place them off limits to public disclosure.

"The high error rate," the ISOO said in its annual review, can only be addressed by a multifaceted effort and continuous oversight.

The report comes as the office of Vice President Dick Cheney is refusing to cooperate with the office of the National Archives. The report noted that Cheney's office "did not report data to ISOO this year."

Executive branch agencies give the ISOO data on how much material they classify and declassify. Cheney's office provided the information in 2001 and 2002, then stopped.

"The reviews of actual decision making are striking, given the vice president's refusal to report" to the ISOO, said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the National Security Archive, a private group advocating public disclosure of government secrets.

The White House says it's clear that the president's executive order on the matter never intended for the vice president's office to be treated as an agency.

The ISOO said the Pentagon reported a 35 percent decline in its activity to classify documents, and that the amount of classification government-wide declined for the second straight year.

However, the amount of derivative classification activity rose by more than 6 million actions.

Derivative classification is the act of incorporating in a new form information that has already been classified.

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