The czar, who would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, would spend the next four years overhauling the agency, which has come under tremendous fire statewide for pursuing development of toll roads -- especially the Trans-Texas Corridor -- and misreporting $1.1 billion in funds that caused a year-long cash flow crisis and shut down many road projects.
"We are desperately trying to restore the trust of the people," said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.
The move to fire the five-member Texas Transportation Commission passed the sunset commission on Tuesday by a 7-5 vote. Lawmakers serving on the sunset commission said they would take their proposed overhaul of the transportation department to the state Legislature during the session that begins next month.
The new czar also would have the option of firing the transportation department's executive director, who traditionally has come from within the department's engineering ranks. The current executive director is Amadeo Saenz.
Among those opposing the creation of a czar position were state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, and state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, who chairs the sunset commission. Isett said he was concerned that hiring a czar wouldn't address the key problem at the transportation department. "My problem is with the culture within this agency, and the way they manipulate their information," Isett said. Isett said taking away power from the current five-member commission "gives all the power to the bureaucrats."
The vote in favor of a transportation czar was one of more than a dozen major changes approved for the transportation department during a daylong sunset hearing in Austin. The sunset commission also agreed to:
- Remove the transportation department's responsibility for vehicle registration, and create a separate department of motor vehicles to handle duties related to the regulation of drivers. The new department would also handle overweight vehicle enforcement and auto theft prevention.
- Create a new legislative committee to work closely with the transportation czar and oversee the inner workings of the Texas Department of Transportation. The committee would ensure the desires of state lawmakers were being met.
- Hire a consulting firm to map out a way for the transportation department to overhaul its management, and win back the confidence of Texans.
- In addition to the decisions made Tuesday regarding the Texas Department of Transportation, the sunset commission also deliberated on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Commission on Fire Protection and Commissions on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education.