AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — House Democratic leader Jim Dunnam said Monday the Texas Department of Transportation may have violated federal law by not giving priority to economically distressed areas in the adoption of maintenance projects that will get federal stimulus money.
TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott suggested Dunnam did not fully understand the legislation and said the department complied with the law when adopting $500 million in road and bridge maintenance projects last week.
Dunnam read a portion of the federal stimulus bill, signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 17, that stipulated economically disadvantaged areas "shall" be given priority in spending. He asked TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz on Monday whether economically disadvantaged areas were a factor. Saenz said they weren't.
"We are subject to being charged back this money if y'all don't spend it in compliance with statute," said Dunnam, chairman of the House Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding.
TxDOT is scheduled to vote again Thursday on how to spend the bulk of Texas' transportation money from the stimulus — $1.2 billion.
"I'm not sure Rep. Dunnam understands what the law says," Lippincott said. "Federal law can be complicated."
After more than an hour of questioning from members of the committee, Saenz agreed to "check to make sure we have complied with the federal mandate."
About $17 billion of Obama's economic stimulus package is headed for Texas, some of it helping to fill the gaps that otherwise would have strained the two-year state budget and its Rainy Day Fund savings account. Officials are still trying to figure out how and where to spend it, but fears of deep cuts and a looming future deficit have all but faded.
In transportation funding, Texas is getting $2.25 billion from the stimulus, but transportation officials say the state's needs are far greater.