The Austin Chronicle

Now Dunnam Is Really Pissed at TxDOT

By Lee Nichols, March 3, 2009, 5:37pm, Newsdesk

If Texas Department of Transportation officials felt roughed up by the tongue-lashing Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam gave them in yesterday, it’s nothing like what he’d like to give them now. Problem is, they weren’t in his committee today to receive it.

At yesterday’s meeting of the House Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding (aka “the stimulus”), Dunnam charged that TxDOT may have violated the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act because it has already committed $500 million of stimulus money for maintenance projects, but didn’t consider “economically distressed areas” as a factor in prioritizing where to spend that money, as the law requires. Dunnam laid into TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz and assistant director John Barton, saying, “We are subject to being charged back this money if y'all don't spend it in compliance with statute," said Dunnam.

In an interview with the Associated Press – apparently before the meeting had even ended – TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott told reporter April Castro, “I'm not sure Rep. Dunnam understands what the law says. Federal law can be complicated."

Dunnam was visibly peeved by that comment at today’s committee meeting, as well as by apparent communications that the department made to the Texas Congressional delegation that he says misrepresented the position of his committee.

Evidence of the latter came from an e-mail that Dunnam said had been sent earlier today between some Texas congressional aides (Dunnam’s office blacked out their names in copies given to the press). The e-mail was titled "TXDOT Request of TX Delegation," and read:

TXDOT informs me that the Texas State Legislature has mounted firm opposition to the process by which TXDOT selected the Statewide Priority Projects and the Rehab/Maintenance Projects from HR 1, the ARRA or “Stimulus” package. Essentially, the Subcommittee that House Speaker Strauss [sic] created to oversee the stimulus is Chaired by Waco Representative Dunham [sic], and this Subcommittee is the source of all the opposition to TXDOT and charges that the only consideration for projects to be used from the Stimulus should be economically distressed areas.

As I recall, the statute gave priority to these areas but it was not statute that “economically distressed areas” be the only consideration.

Questions: 1) Do I have the legislation’s intent and language correct?; and 2) would this issue be something your bosses would want to be vocal on?

If the Legislature brings TXDOT back to the drawing board, many projects in North Texas as well as the entire state that were identified to receive funding may not.

“If Mr. Barton and Mr. Saenz don’t know what law is, as it was stated to us, I’d like to know who at TxDOT can tell us what the law is,” said Dunnam, who apparently had expected Lippincott so testify before the committee today. “I find it disturbing that the spokesman for TxDOT would come out … I think before hearing was over, [and say] the committee doesn’t understand what it’s doing.

“I want to make sure we do understand, and if we don’t, then I would like somebody to bring it to our attention and let us know. And if they need to do that through the Associated Press, that’s fine, but it would probably be more efficient for the executive director to tell us where we might be off.”

Turning his attention to the congressional aide’s e-mail, Dunnam said, “It’s interesting, because this committee has been very clear that the issue of economically distressed areas is a factor and a priority that must be given. I think it’s been very clear to all the members here that no one has said that that is the only consideration that should be given to projects. However, TxDOT apparently contacted the Texas congressional delegation and said that the subcommittee is the source of all the opposition to TxDOT, which if you’ve been on the House floor, you’ll know that’s not accurate. … That is a very clear misstatement of what we’ve been talking about.

“So TxDOT is communicating what I believe is inaccurate information and representation of what this select committee has been doing, and asking for intervention from our congressional delegation, and that’s just not the way to do business.”

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