Gov. Greg Abbott Friday offered his choices for two vacancies on the Texas Transportation Commission, including just-retired state representative Tryon Lewis, a Republican who last fall opposed a constitutional amendment to provide money for highways.
Abbott also named San Antonio banking and investment executive J. Bruce Bugg Jr. The governor, who by law appoints the chairman of the five-member commission, has not decided who among the three incumbent members or the two nominees should be chairman. The Lewis and Bugg nominations are subject to Senate confirmation.
Lewis, an Odessa Republican and for over two decades a state district judge, wrote a guest editorial in the Sept. 14 Odessa American headlined “Why I am voting ‘no’ on Prop 1.” That amendment, later approved by almost 80 percent of state voters, redirects to the Texas Department of Transportation half of the money that otherwise would go to the state rainy day fund. TxDOT in December got its first annual payment from the measure, $1.74 billion.
But Lewis, who served in the House from 2008 until last month, based his opposition on the source of the Prop 1 money, oil and gas severance taxes. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
“The proposition violates the ‘users pay’ principle of financing our highways,” he wrote, referring to the state’s 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax that along with a federal gas tax generates much of TxDOT’s funding. “That finance system is fair, dependable and adequate to build and maintain highways.”
Oil and gas severance taxes, on the other hand, are “undependable,” wrote Lewis, now a partner with the law firm Atkins, Hollman Jones, Peacock, Lewis & Lyon. And because severance taxes are generated strictly from Texas resources, “out-of-state drivers get a free ride,” he said. In the editorial, Lewis also called for doubling the state gas tax.
Abbott, on the other hand, supported Proposition 1 and opposes raising the gas tax, as does most of the Legislature’s leadership.
Asked if the governor was aware of Lewis’ stance on those issues, the governor’s office referred only to Abbott’s statement released to the press.
“Bruce Bugg and Tryon Lewis will be effective voices for accelerating economic expansion, growing jobs and improving infrastructure without raising taxes, fees or tolls,” Abbott was quoted as saying.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, spent much of last year traveling the state to push for Proposition 1’s passage. He said he considers Lewis a “great guy,” but had tried unsuccessfully to change his mind about the amendment. In any case, he said, Prop 1 is a settled issue and Lewis would do a good job of overseeing a huge, complex agency.
“TxDOT needs a lot of oversight,” Pickett said. “It needs more direction, somone to ask hard questions. I’m more concerned about the 90 percent of the iceberge below the surface than the tip.”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he has known Lewis for more than 20 years.
“I look forward to working with him on the transportation commission,” he said. “He’s a dedicated public servant, and I think he will be imaginative and someone we can talk to.”