In budget plans, riders as telling as the numbers

Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 1:24pm

Tucked away deep inside the budget plans proposed by the Texas House and Senate is a reference to a single exit off of Interstate 35.

The passage states that the exit ramp for “IH-35 at exit number 359” cannot be moved more than 1,000 feet unless refusing to do so would cause Texas to lose federal funding or be in violation of federal law.

The oddly specific provision is one of dozens of passages in the budget, commonly referred to as riders, that allow those crafting the state appropriations to guide state policy while allocating billions of dollars in public money.

The exit-ramp rider, directed at the Texas Department of Transportation, is a holdover from a budget several years ago. It was added at the request of the tiny town of Abbott, according to the House’s lead budget writer, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. Local officials were concerned that the location of a rebuilt exit ramp was going to prevent cars from easily accessing a service station that provides a significant stream of sales tax revenue to the town of fewer than 400 people, he said.

“The Abbott people asked that the exit can stay so people could get off at that service station,” Pitts said.

While few lawmakers will pay much attention to whether the exit ramp rider remains in the budget, other riders will play a key role in negotiations as House and Senate leaders hash out a budget plan in the final weeks of the legislative session.

A rider that appears only in the Senate version of the budget underscores an ongoing debate among lawmakers over the Texas Facilities Commission’s approach to private investment. The provision would bar the commission from using any of its budget for “public-private partnerships” in the Capitol complex.

Last session, the Legislature gave the commission authority to pursue such partnerships to make better use of some state-owned properties. But concerns over some ideas, such as the proposed construction of a 47-story residential tower at the north end of the Capitol complex, have prompted some lawmakers to rethink the 2011 bill.

“A public-private partnership is not bad if you need a partner,” state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said at a Senate Finance hearing on the commission last month. “We’re not California. We’re not broke. We ought to be investing in the future of our state in our state-owned buildings.”

Riders are often added to the budget to ensure that a state agency spends a certain amount of money in the exact way lawmakers intend. If a rider in the proposed House budget plan is ultimately signed by Gov. Rick Perry, for example, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will spend $1.5 million cleaning up “a site of a closed battery recycling facility in a city with a population in excess of 120,000.” The description describes only one facility in Texas: the Exide Battery Recycling Plant in Frisco, which has had issues with hazardous waste disposal. Exide announced it was shutting down the plant last year.

Frisco City Manager George Purefoy said the city has been working with local lawmakers “as well as members of the appropriation and finance committees to address Frisco’s unique challenge, resulting from years of Exide Technology’s operation in our community.”

Sometimes, it’s the absence of a rider that signals a change in lawmakers’ thinking. Last session, the budget included a rider allowing the comptroller to spend up to $2 million on a program highlighting the economic cost of obesity in Texas.

The comptroller’s office requested the money again this session, hoping to maintain a website and award grants to public schools for obesity prevention and intervention programs.

So far, it is missing from both the House and Senate budgets.

“We do not plan on asking for additional funding for the Reshaping Texas obesity web portal,” said R.J. DeSilva, a spokesman for the comptroller’s office. “We will continue to use available resources to implement this important program.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/03/28/budget-plans-riders-telling-numbers/.

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