The Rule of Men, Not Law

Who gave Lanier & Co. permission to loot Metro? They did.

Wrong interpretation, says Naomi Lede, who at the time was a city appointee to the Metro board. "The compromise was that we would give as much as 25 percent and use the other 75 to build a mass transit system," recalls Lede. "I would not have voted for it if it had not been that way."

It has not been that way since 1992, when Lanier took office, finally finished off rail -- it was replaced with a $1 billion regional bus plan -- and began tapping Metro reserves to the tune of $55 million a year. According to Metro's figures, 51 percent of the sales tax has gone toward general mobility since Lanier took office. The agency's budget surplus, once a comfortable $600 million, is now estimated to be less than $100 million. Last September, Metro raised bus fares, cut routes and laid off 48 workers.

Lanier's raid on Metro's coffers has been carried out with the help of Burge. In another salient illustration of the way things work around here, Burge's permitted tenure on the Metro board -- members are limited to two four-year terms -- expired last month. Despite remarks earlier this year by County Judge Robert Eckels that he wanted to replace Burge (he's a county appointee), the diminutive developer is still chairman of the board. Burge says he is "phasing out" of the position. But don't be surprised if he's still around at the end of the year, when the city's current revenue contract with Metro expires and Lanier will propose a renewal.

"The deal is," Burge explained to the Chronicle last month, "you serve until you accomplish whatever you want."

Gee, most people think the deal is you play by the rules.
Burge was the recipient of a six-page letter last month from George Greanias in which the city controller proposed that voters get a chance to weigh in on Lanier's use of the transit agency's sales tax subsidy. Macey made the same suggestion to Council last week. The whole transit issue, he said, "is a burr that continues to stir this community."

"Put it on the ballot, once and for all. Get rid of it," he said.
Lanier's probably not inclined to let that happen. During his campaign to unseat Whitmire in 1991, he repeatedly called for a new referendum on Metro's rail plan, citing figures about the cost effectiveness of rail that he had used as Whitmire's Metro chairman to move toward killing the light rail "connector" that the transit agency and voters had approved. That was just one of a number of campaign promises that Lanier, once elected, acted as if he had never made. His 1991 election and subsequent re-election constitute a mandate to kill rail and spend Metro money on his own budget priorities, he has argued.

"I've been here three years and three months," Lanier said last week, "and I have yet to go to a public meeting where somebody raised their hand and said, 'Lanier, why don't you build us a train.'"

Of course, in the future, maybe when Lanier's out of office, somebody may be asking why the buses don't run so much anymore and why it costs so much to ride those that do.

And there's the fact that Metro also collects sales tax from residents outside the city limits in Harris County and 14 surrounding towns served by the transit agency. Those taxpayers have watched the number of bus routes decrease and fares rise while Lanier drains Metro to meet the city's needs.

"It's all a phony argument," says King, "this notion that we look at our polls and the polls think this is great -- you're talking about tax funds. It's not an issue of polling, it's an issue of voting."

But both the Metro board and City Council appear willing to honor Lanier's self-decreed mandate. Last week, Council was putty in Lanier's and Macey's hands, swallowing their arguments while displaying a tenuous grasp of the most basic information. Councilman Felix Fraga, for example, needed Macey to explain what kind of road projects the subsidy is used for -- less than a month before he will vote on Lanier's 1996 budget, which includes another $50 million in revenue transferred from Metro's coffers.

Lanier told another councilman who asked how much subsidy the voters actually approved in 1988 that Texas Attorney General Dan Morales had ruled that Metro was not in violation of the referendum's results. But if councilmembers had read that opinion, they would know the attorney general, citinga lack of facts, did not offer a ruling on either the legitimacy of the spending or whether the 25 percent set-aside was a minimum.

"If Lanier says otherwise, it's an outright lie," says King, adding that he had learned Lanier visited Morales' office just before the opinion was released. "The attorney general found a way to finesse not issuing a ruling."

Likewise, Macey was able to easily float past Council the notion that, if you counted back to Metro's inception in 1978, only 20 percent of the penny sales tax had been used for general mobility. "So we're 5 percent short," observed math whiz John Kelley, oblivious to the fact that voters approved a referendum that clearly stated the tax subsidy would begin in February 1988.

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