1/25/2008Toll Road Agencies Hire Lobbyists, Violate Law
The tolls motorists pay in Pennsylvania and Texas often go to buy influence in Washington, DC. Texas lobbying effort may violate state law.
Toll road authorities across the country are taking the money collected from motorists and handing it to lobbyists hired to convince federal and state officials to expand tolling and protect the agencies' parochial interests. The toll road hired guns urged federal officials to add toll booths to existing freeways, including Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania and Interstates 10, 27 and 35 in Texas. Texas tolling officials may even have violated the law in their effort.
"Lobbying firms that specialize in working for local municipalities routinely boast on their websites how much return they can bring in, as one way to justify their costs," Center for Responsive Politics analyst Julia Pflaum wrote in an October study of public lobbying.
Pflaum listed the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission as the fourth biggest spender of public money on lobbyists, based on data provided in public disclosure forms. According to the figures, the Turnpike spent $280,000 in toll money last year to buy the influence needed to bring coveted federal earmarks to boost the Turnpike's budget and to convince state legislators to authorize a significant toll hike. Payments of between $200,000 and $20,000 went to lobby shops including the American Continental Group; Borski Associates; Baker, Donelson et al; and Hill Solutions. Similar spending reported over the past decade amounted to $2,030,000 in direct lobbying expenses. This represents more than a quarter of the total amount spent by the entire Pennsylvania state government on lobbying, but it does not represent the full amount of toll dollars diverted from improving the roads to influence peddling.
The Turnpike employs its own staff lobbyist, Director of Government Affairs John T Martino, who earns $132,000 a year. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of Turnpike spending in Washington, DC on "government relations" revealed that the actual total lobbying expense for just the year 2006 was closer to $712,000.
On Tuesday, a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Commissioner, Ted Houghton, admitted that the agency hired lobbyists to convince federal lawmakers to transfer federal tax dollars to TxDOT and to promote the Trans Texas Corridor toll road. Houghton had been speaking at a town hall meeting in Hempstead, a small city in Waller County.
"Let me talk about the lobbyist in Washington, DC," Houghton said. "We hire a lobbyist up there to represent the interests of the state of Texas."
According to Texas Toll Party founder Sal Costello, there is a problem with this admission.
"This is a direct violation of the law," Costello said, pointing to Section 556.005 of the Texas Government Code, which states:
"A state agency may not use appropriated money to employ, as a regular full-time or part-time or contract employee, a person who is required by Chapter 305 to register as a lobbyist."
View a brief video of Houghton's admission on YouTube.