Two Public Servants Who Will Figure In Texas Highway History

Written by  Lawrence Olsen, Executive Vice President, Texas Good Roads

Grand Slam
Lawrence poses for a picture with National AGC’s Brian Deery, Bob Lanham and Franca Deery, during the Annual Parking Lot Fish Fry. Lawrence retired from Texas Good Roads in July. This is his final article.

With the grand slam homerun that ended the 84th Session of the Texas Legislature, State Senator Robert Nichols has assured his future election to the Highway Hall of Fame. Whenever he finally reaches that pinnacle, one of the folks who will be awaiting him there will be his predecessor at the Texas Highway Commission, Bob Lanier of Houston, who died Dec. 20, 2014, at age 89.

In case you were on the other side of the planet for the last few months, this level of success is exactly what Senator Nichols of Jacksonville achieved with the passage of SJR 5, a constitutional amendment that Texas voters will decide on November 3. The proposed amendment would change the constitution so that general sales-tax receipts of $2.5 billion annually would flow to the highway fund. In addition, when certain thresholds are satisfied, additional monies would be redirected from the sales tax on motor vehicles to the highway fund. The first change would take effect in FY 2018 and the latter in FY 2020. Of course, voter approval is needed to add this provision to the constitution.

Of course, Senator Nichols is a modest person, especially for an elected official, so he would likely be the first to say that he was only a part of this process—but that would be a bald understatement. Certainly, none of this success would have possible without the strong support and urging of the Big 3: Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Joe Straus. And Nichols’ House counterpart, Joe Pickett of El Paso, who leads the House Committee on Transportation, provided his fair share of heavy lifting as well. Both of these gentlemen traversed the state last year to stump for Prop. 1, which called for using portions of the highway fund previously earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund.

Nearly 80 percent of Texans said yes to Prop 1. This clear statement on the part of Texas’ voters was still ringing in the ears of the Big 3 and the members of the 84th Legislature when it convened in January. In fact, the message was so loud and clear, that on the final vote for the adoption of the conference committee report on SJR 5, the tally was unanimous in the 31 member senate and 142-1 in the Texas House(Houston Rep. Harold Dutton being the lone dissenter).

Although he served as mayor of his hometown prior to being named to the Texas Transportation Commission, Mr. Nichols was not a high-profile political player in Texas. He was a very hardworking businessman, with a degree in engineering from Lamar University in Beaumont. He had successfully built and sold several businesses. In 1997, Gov. George W. Bush was going through the process of a filling the “rural” slot on the Transportation Commission. He had named the Chairman two years earlier, with the appointment of David Laney of Dallas.

The governor told the Senate, which has power to approve (or not) most gubernatorial appointments, that he really wanted to fill the next open slot with his longtime friend and supporter Johnny W. Johnson, a successful oilman and banker. Mr. Johnson resided in the River Oaks area of Houston—not quite as “rural” as the law intended. Several of Gov. Bush’s closest allies in the Senate were rural Republicans, such as Teel Bivins of Amarillo, Bob Duncan of Lubbock, Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay and Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant. They all told Gov. Bush they thought Mr. Johnson was a fine, first-class gentleman, but he was not rural.

Gov. Bush did not take kindly to this response. In fact, after he and the Senate remained at loggerheads for a while, he had a gathering of House members at the governor’s mansion and told them he was open to their suggestions for the Highway Commission, and he wanted a person from a county under 50,000. One of those House members was second-termer Todd Staples of Palestine. He immediately contacted the governor’s appointments chief (Clay Johnson) and told him that he had a constituent who had just finished a very successful stint as Mayor of Jacksonville. “This fellow Nichols is full of energy and enthusiasm and did not know the meaning of the word quit,” Staples told the governor’s folks.

After a quick examination of Nichols’ background and credentials, they told Staples they agreed, and Gov. Bush was ready to nominate Nichols. Rep. Staples (later Senator Staples and Ag Commissioner Staples) swears that Nichols did not believe it was really going to happen and did not fill out the application form until after he was nominated. So were it not for the set-to between Gov. Bush and his rural Republican senator friends and aggressive recruiting of Rep. Staples, Texas may have missed out on one of the most outstanding individuals ever to serve on the Texas Transportation Commission.

As fate would have it, when Staples decided to leave the Senate to run for Ag Commissioner in 2006, Mr. Nichols was ready and raring to go after eight years on the Transportation Commission. He bested four opponents in the Republican primary (including one from the district’s largest county, Montgomery), and has not had a serious contest since. Both former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and current Lt Gov Patrick have recognized Nichols’ knowledge of transportation and his ability to work and communicate with his colleagues. Nichols is only one of four senators who chaired the same committees under the last two Senate leaders.

Sen. Nichols was among several senators who praised Bob Lanier when his death was marked by the Senate on April 29. When Gov. Mark White tabbed Bob Lanier to join the three-member Highway Commission in 1983, his name was known to a few insiders in Houston politics, but not to the public at large. Lanier had been a behindthe- scenes money-raiser for Mayor Louie Welch and some other campaigns, but did weigh in big-time to back his fellow Houstonian White when he unseated Gov. Bill Clements in 1982.

Lanier, as with Nichols a decade later, was largely retired at the time of his appointment from a long and successful career in law, finance and real estate investment. The first in his family to attend college and son of a Baytown refinery worker, Lanier never forgot his roots. Gov. White and others in his administration had told the financially wise Lanier to go over to the Highway Dept. and find the money there that Gov. White could use to fulfill his campaign pledge for increased teacher pay. After studying the department’s books for a couple of months, Lanier met with Gov. White and told him that the Highway Dept. did not have excess funds and, in fact, was woefully underfunded. Thus began the Lanier campaign, which culminated with a special session in July 1984, with the first increase in the motor fuels tax in 29 years and the first registration fee increase in more than 20 years.

Before Lanier resigned his position on the Commission in the summer of 1987, the Texas Legislature increased the gasoline tax twice more, once temporarily and once permanently to 15 cents. Lanier later became chairman of the Texas Good Roads Association as well as chairman of Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority. In the latter role, he was fired by the woman who appointed him, Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire in 1989 over Lanier’s vocal opposition to increased funding for rail transit. In 1999, Lanier ran for Mayor of Houston against Whitmire and defeated her and the other challenger Sylvester Turner. Lanier served three terms and stepped down because of term limits.

When the House also honored Bob Lanier with a resolution sponsored by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, one of those voicing high praise for him was State Rep. Turner, whom he had defeated in a rather bitter 1991 runoff. Lanier’s achievements as a bipartisan Mayor were so good that even his former foes became allies.

A final footnote: both Lanier and Nichols were instrumental in the landslide victories for two constitutional amendments. Of course, fresh in the minds of all, is the smashing 80-percent win last November, which provided $1.7 billion more for the highway fund this year and $2.4 billion more in the next budget.

In 1988, Lanier employed a more defensive move, which clarified that the federal highway reimbursements could only be used for building highways. Some of Gov. Clements’ budget leaders had toyed with the idea of trying to divert these federal reimbursements to the general fund. Lanier’s personally drafted amendment gained 87 percent of voters’ approval.

The numeral 30 above is in reference to the fact that this is my final column. After 36 years (27 with TGR and nine years prior to that with the AGC of Texas), I am departing. Working with outstanding individuals and companies, who care deeply about Texas and want to improve its infrastructure, has been very rewarding. The ongoing support of the membership has been very heartening and is sincerely appreciated. ¬-Lawrence Olsen

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