SENATE TAKES ACTION TO REPLACE YOUTH COMMISSION BOARD
(AUSTIN) — The Senate met in an extraordinary session Wednesday evening to call upon the Governor to put the embattled Texas Youth Commission under new administration. A two-year old investigation that has recently come to light that alleges acts of sexual misconduct by state employees at one facility, the West Texas School in Pyote. This report, along with the alleged cover-up that led to its suppression for two years, and other systemic problems within the agency, led to Wednesday's action.
Much of the focus in the Senate this week has been directed at TYC mismanagement. A Tuesday hearing of the Criminal Justice Committee determined that some of the employees allegedly involved in the sexual abuse scandal are still employed at the TYC, particularly the supervisor responsible for hiring the two employees alleged to have committed the sexual abuse. Neil Nichols, who took over the agency as interim director following the appointed director's resignation, testified before the committee that manager, Chip Harrison, is a valued employee who now supervises three TYC facilities. That didn't sit well with Chairman John Whitmire. "How in the world, with Mr. Harrison having been documented that he knew about the sexual abuses been taking place, how do you tell this committee that you still have this person employed at your agency?" he asked. Whitmire said later that Harrison had been placed on administrative suspension by the agency by the end of the committee meeting. Later that day the Governor recommended that Nichols be replaced.
Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, a long-time advocate of sweeping reforms within the TYC, says the Senate's Wednesday action is a move in the right direction, but it is only a first step. "Those young juveniles have been entrusted to the state of Texas, and it's our responsibility to provide them with services, counseling and education that we promised to the general public," he said. "I strongly support this resolution, but it is just a first step in changing the culture, changing management, and changing the system."
Hinojosa said agency workers are overworked, under-trained, and that the agency is dominated by a culture that suppresses employee complaints through apathy and intimidation. He has filed a bill that would increase training standards for TYC facility guards to 300 hours, create an internal department to investigate allegations of abuse in the agency, and prevent older minors from being house with younger minors in TYC dorms.
Another big issue this week revolved around the Texas Department of Transportation's administration of Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDA) with respect to the construction of new toll road projects and Governor Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor. Legislation passed during the 78th Session gave TxDOT permission to negotiate and sign agreements with private contractors to build and administer transportation projects. A lack of transparency, long lease terms, and potential skyrocketing toll rates have led to dissatisfaction with TxDOT's performance in this arena from both elected officials and the general public.
TxDOT signed a CDA Tuesday that would build a new toll road project in north Texas. Lt. Governor Dewhurst said that although the deal will bring more than $2 billion in up-front concessions to state coffers, there are serious problems not only with this project but future projects. "When I asked the leadership of TxDOT what type of tolls they are going to have to have in order to amortize these huge payments, its astronomical over what the state would pay in toll roads," he said. He added that he was concerned that there are between 12 and 21 future projects being considered by TxDOT and the Legislature doesn't know what is in those contracts.
Senator Steve Ogden, who sponsored the 2003 legislation, said TxDOT isn't administering CDAs in the way he intended. "It never crossed my mind that these comprehensive development agreements, which were supposed to be design-build contracts, would morph into something like this," said Ogden. Ogden is concerned, he said, about giving away state oversight for a valuable public asset for 50 years or more. Additionally, he says the state is not in a financial position where it needs to seek funding through the public sector. "The state of Texas does not lack the credit facilities necessary to build all the roads it needs to build. This argument may have been made in the past when we were broke, but we're not broke," said Ogden "We probably have the best credit and the best access to credit that we have ever had in the history of our state." Ogden added that, as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, he is not averse to using the appropriations process to leverage Legislative influence on TxDOT.
Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chair John Carona said that CDAs have benefits, but very tangible drawbacks. While CDAs allow for faster project construction, and concessions to the state in the form of large lumps sums of money before projects begin, these agreements present problems beyond just high toll rates, said Carona. "There are significant penalties for building other roads, competing roads, if you will, in this region, at a time where we find it difficult to plan transportation needs for a growing state like this 15 to 20 years out, being under strict, non-compete agreements for 50 years makes it all but certain we'll have to do one of two things in the years to come: we will either have to buy back these projects at literally billions of dollars, astronomical amounts, or we'll have be ready to accept very high rates for very long periods of time," he said.
Carona held a Transportation and Homeland Security Committee hearing Thursday in order to hear concerns from the public about TxDOT's current construction policies. Hundreds of citizens offered testimony, both written and verbal, but there were several common themes. Texans expressed concern about the lack of transparency and public input in to new construction projects, a lack of respect for private property rights, and the possibility of eminent domain seizures to take new land for Trans-Texas Corridor construction. Other concerns included awarding contracts to foreign developers and the possibility that TxDOT has stepped over its statutory bounds in designing and constructing new transportation projects.
The State Auditor's Office completed an audit of one of the Trans-Texas Corridor project, a stretch of highway to run parallel to I-35 from Oklahoma to Laredo, on February 23. SAO official Sandra Vice testified at Thursday's hearing that their audit found costs for the project difficult to determine, because of accounting difficulties within TxDOT, and that this project could include some hidden costs to the state. The auditor's report recommended requiring more transparency for toll road construction projects, require the SAO to audit future projects, and that TxDOT submit draft contracts and agreements on projects costing more than $250 million or construction lasting more than four year to the Attorney General's office for approval.