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Texas Press Association State Capital Highlights
Wednesday, February 13, 2008 • Posted February 12, 2008

Senate committees question TxDOT over finances

Higher-ups at the Texas Department of Transportation sat in front of two state Senate committees for about three hours and tried to answer questions about how the agency got to where it is, in a financial sinkhole.

At a Feb. 4 meeting, lawmakers in a joint meeting of the Senate Finance and Transportation Committees questioned TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz Jr., interim chair of the Texas Transportation Commission Esperanza "Hope" Andrade and others.

The officials said TxDOT committed a $1.1 billion bookkeeping error and scheduled more road projects than the agency could afford to fund. This resulted in road project freezes and cutbacks.

Lawmakers expressed disdain over how that could happen. They asked if this was a political stunt to push the state closer to public-private roadbuilding projects or just a case of incompetent management.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, called for an independent audit of TxDOT's financial records.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, serves as vice chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security.

"Fortunately, legislators from both parties, every region and all backgrounds, are equally fed up with TxDOT," Watson said.

"Not only will there be some major reforms on tap for the next legislative session, but the Sunset Commission is reviewing the agency from top to bottom."

Texas emerges as key in primaries

Super Tuesday primary elections or caucuses in 24 states on Feb. 5 made U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona the prohibitive favorite as the Republican Party candidate for president.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ended his quest for the nomination after spending more than $35 million of his own money on the campaign. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee stayed in, having won five states himself on a shoestring budget.

With less than a month to go until its March 4 primaries, Texas is primed for a duel between McCain, the defense-minded war veteran, and Huckabee, the ordained Baptist minister with populist appeal. At this point, neither McCain nor Huckabee has the financial means to saturate Texas media markets with advertising.

Another candidate still in the GOP race is U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Lake Jackson, Texas, a wild card with his Libertarian leanings and pro-life stance. His following, especially among college students and younger Texans, could draw double digits and tighten the race between McCain and Huckabee.

The Democratic presidential candidates, U.S. Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., had nearly matching delegate counts after Super Tuesday and other state primaries held Feb. 6-10. As of Feb. 11, Obama had captured 19 states and Clinton, 12. Both candidates are expected to spend time and advertising dollars in the delegate-rich Lone Star State as March 4 approaches.

Group studies gaps in education

Texas schools serving mostly poor and minority students often have less of everything that matters in education - especially strong teachers.

That finding was published in January by The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that promotes "high academic achievement for all students, pre-kindergarten through college."

The Education Trust found that "Instead of providing these students with the kind of teachers they need to catch up to other students, low-income, Hispanic and African-American students in Texas are:

• Less likely to be assigned to fully certified teachers;

• Less likely to be in classrooms with experienced teachers; and

• Less likely to attend a school with a stable teaching force."

Conservator running for top post

Richard Nedelkoff, current state-appointed conservator of the troubled Texas Youth Commission, is a candidate for appointment as the agency's executive director.

Acting Director Dimitria Pope said at an interim meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice that she is not being considered for the job.

Nedelkoff, TYC's third conservator since allegations arose last year regarding abuse of youth in the facility, has resigned as chief operations office with Florida-based Eckerd Youth Alternatives Inc., a post that he had held until recently while serving as TYC conservator.

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