Part 1: Watchdog’s 2017 Legislative Agenda – Insurance, privacy, electricity shopping, property tax reform

I love the Texas Legislature.

You don’t hear those words very often. But ever since I visited for the first time, in 1995, and watched then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock work his magic over everyone, I see the lege for the good it does. Who says that these days?

#txlege — and that’s actually the official hashtag — is a vehicle for change, for improvement. The Watchdog receives several thousand emails and letters each year from Texans who gripe about their biggest problems. It’s easy for me to detect patterns and point out which areas of consumer life need fixing.

What I don’t like is how hard it is to get our points across. The problem is the lobbyists, who swarm like fire ants. They are everywhere, on their phones, standing in the back of hearings, earning their fat salaries — many times more than a legislator makes. They have steakhouse expense accounts and big budgets for campaign donations. As you can imagine, lobbyists are incredibly charming.

lobbyists March 31 2015

Lobbyists and other interested parties attend committee meetings for bills in Austin. But most people who have opinions on pending matters don’t attend. They’re at work.(Dave Lieber/Staff)

To counter that, I have a Watchdog Nation strategy. It’s old-fashioned people power. You and me. We get in there and dust it up. As I did two years ago, today I reveal the top five Watchdog laws I’d like to see passed in 2017. We even have a logo.

logo 2

We’ll follow their progress and show you how to lobby lawmakers to protect your interests.

The plan

This is how we did it together two years ago. Three of our five suggested consumer fixes actually became law. We created a Watchdog Hall of Fame for lawmakers who picked up the baton and crossed the finish line. Let’s do it again.

If you want to get involved in any of these battles, send an email to me at and I’ll make sure you’re in the loop. Which lawmakers should you write to? Where is a bill stuck? Who are the heroes and villains?

Electricity reform

Battle No. 1: Deceptive electricity shopping must stop.

Who is going to stand up to the marketing deceptions that some electricity companies use to sign up customers? Because of these, many Texans overpay for electricity and don’t even know it.

After I showed how companies used phony 1-cent rates to beat search engines and come out first in search results, the state took action to stop that. But it’s only a start.

Public Utility Commission Chairman Donna Nelson said last year that some electricity companies “always find a way” around the PUC’s best efforts to keep the marketplace honest and transparent.

She said, in words that confirm my reporting over the past decade, “Whatever practice we put in place to try and end the confusion, then they find a way around that.”

I have suggested four points of improvement. I’m proud that The Dallas Morning News editorial board supports these points, as does the leading electricity consumer group Texas ROSE. More important, I have email addresses of several hundred of you who want to help.

The four points of what I’d call the “Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2017” include:

1) Compare apples to apples. Force every company to list offered rates, with the distribution charge included. (Many hide that.)
2) Ban deceptive language. Don’t let confusing teaser rates and technical language disguise the real cost of service. Regulate those tricky and often-lying door-to-door salesmen.

3) End minimum-usage deals. Making people pay more if they use less power doesn’t encourage conservation.

4) Warn copycat sites. Demand that companies using “power to choose” language on their websites (that’s the name of the state’s shopping site) announce they are not the state website.
Some electricity companies use keywords “power to choose” because that’s also the name of the state-sponsored site.
Some electricity companies use keywords “power to choose” because that’s also the name of the state-sponsored site.

Property taxes

Battle No. 2: Make the property tax system fair.

I get that #txlege won’t pass an income tax. OK, but our biggest government money grab could at least be set up so it’s based on fairness, rather than whim. Because sale prices are kept secret, tax bills, I believe, are based on guesswork, more than science.

I showed last year how local governments pretend they aren’t raising taxes even if they are. I also showed what an unfair advantage I had in 2016 when I hired the state’s best known tax protest company and shaved my tax bill down. My neighbors didn’t. Sorry for them, but is that fair?

Insurance protection

Battle No. 3: Don’t let insurance companies strip us of our rights to protect our family.
Insurance companies are crying that they need help – even though they’ve been making huge profits. I call it an insurance war against consumers.

We must make sure #txlege doesn’t allow companies to block our right to sue. That’s the battlefield. Sometime this session, their attack bill on our legal rights will emerge. The Watchdog will need your help to call it out and knock it down.

Personal privacy

Battle No. 4: Taking all 10 fingerprints for a driver’s license is unnecessary.

The Watchdog fears that Texas Department of Public Safety will try to expand the one-thumbprint rule into 10 fingerprints required for a driver’s license. Otherwise, how will everyone’s full fingerprints make it to the federal fingerprint archives that homeland security buffs dream about at night?

Fortunately, we have our first bill of the year to support. State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, already a charter member of The Watchdog Hall of Fame, has offered Senate Bill 281, which limits governments from collecting not only fingerprints but blood, skin and hair samples, DNA and body scans. This doesn’t affect police work. The bill bans giving up personal information in exchange for providing a government service, such as a driver’s license.

Watchdog Hall of Fame member and State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, introduced a personal privacy bill for the 2017 session.

Taylor’s “Protect Personal Identifiers Act” has little to do with stopping crime, finding terrorists or border security. This is designed to protect the rest of us law-abiding Texans from 1984-style government.

I see that I’ve run out of room. I saved the most important one for last. In my next column, part two, I’ll show you why we need a license system for roofers and general contractors.

Don’t forget. If you want to get involved, send an email to


You can’t afford to miss The Watchdog. Follow our latest reporting always at The Watchdog page.

Watchdog Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News is leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.




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Part 2: Watchdog: Attention state lawmakers – the case for a roofers/contractors license

The other week, I went to small claims court to watch a DeSoto business owner exact revenge on a roofer who relieved him of a $7,700 deposit but provided no roof. The roofer, Lucas Ray Currier, took the deposit money and disappeared.

This story makes me sick. The victim is Bong Huynh, a Vietnamese-American who worked to buy his first American home. After a hail storm, roofers swarmed his neighborhood. He doesn’t speak English, so after the roofer disappeared, a friend of his contacted me on his behalf. I suggested small claims court to get a judgment.

Bong did that. He arrived with a translator whose English wasn’t much better. Roofer Currier no-showed. Bong won. He may never see the money again. But here’s what matters: Roofer Currier can continue to do business in Texas. Who’s going to stop him?

Want to stop him and the hundreds of other unreliable roofers and general contractors who take advantage of storm victims? I have a plan. Pull up a chair.

Bong Huynh is one of many North Texas homeowners who say they were ripped off by disappearing roofers. This photo was taken in small claims court when he won his case.(Dave Lieber/Staff)
Bong Huynh is one of many North Texas homeowners who say they were ripped off by disappearing roofers. This photo was taken in small claims court when he won his case.
(Dave Lieber/Staff)

Help me

In my previous Watchdog report, I unveiled four of the five topics on The Watchdog’s 2017 legislative plan. Recapping, they are: reforming retail electricity shopping; protecting insurance customers’ rights; stopping DPS from taking fingerprints and other biometric information from law-abiding Texans; and fixing the unfair state property tax system.

Here’s the fifth and final one: a required license for roofers and general contractors. Not continuing education, and not even enforcement of violators. I am a pragmatist and realize that’s too much to ask of this legislature. All I want is a list kept that we can check before hiring.

If roofer Currier disappears and gets a judgment against him, his name is taken off the list. You, as a consumer, would know to check the license list. If a roofer isn’t on it, you go another way. That’s my dream. (By the way, I tried to contact Currier, but he didn’t respond.)

The plan

To battle obstacles, I’m calling on your help for old-fashioned people power. If you want to get involved as a citizen of Watchdog Nation in any of these battles, send an email to me at I’ll make sure you’re in the loop. Which lawmakers should you write to? Where is a bill stuck? Who are the heroes and villains?

This is how we did it together two years ago when three of five bills we pushed turned into law. I created a Watchdog Hall of Fame to honor legislators that did this great work. This year, we have our own logo.


Why roofers?

After the Garland-Rowlett-Sunnyvale tornado attack in December 2015, my colleague Marina Trahan Martinez and I easily found roofers violating rules and state laws. They didn’t care. Then the letters from frustrated customers began piling up. A sampling:

A woman complains the roofer put in vents upside down so water comes into her house. The roofer won’t help.

Another woman tells me her contractor took a down payment, completed one-third of the work, shut down his cell phone and was never heard from again.

A man shows me evidence of 12 leaks in his roof since it was installed in 2014.

Another man lays out the story of how his roofer also refuses to honor the warranty and repair shoddy work.

Yet another man sends me proof of an incomplete roof job. He says he lost $10,000 to a disappearing roofer.

A married couple tells me that after a hailstorm they gave $5,000 for roof and window repairs. “They no longer answer their phone and have not contacted us in two months.”

A man lost $5,000. “They made up excuse after excuse about why they couldn’t deliver my roofing materials.”

Call center con men

How do these roofing outlaws get jobs? Through word of mouth, through door knocking and the latest annoyance, through call centers that violate Do Not Call lists.

I get these calls, too. They are liars. They tell me they represent a roofing company in the city in which I live. No such company exists. They tell me they are doing my neighbor’s roofs. They’re not. I previously showed how they use fake Caller ID numbers to make it appear they’re local, when they’re not.

Neighbors are tougher

All our surrounding states require licensing or registration for workers who do major work on homes and businesses. Not Texas.

The Watchdog is asking for a simple list, one that we can check before we go out and spend thousands of dollars in one of the most crooked businesses in the great state of Texas.

Enough is enough.

Join me. Write to me at

Read Part One and learn about The Watchdog’s other issues for the 2017 Legislature.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

Check out The Watchdog Mondays on NBC5 at 11:20 a.m. talking about matters important to you.

What Texans are telling The Watchdog

“Your goal is a lofty one and may have challenges in this conservative state. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give it a good try.” — Robert Curry

“During the time I was a general contractor, there were a number of companies that used the title ‘general contractor’ who were operating out of their pickup trucks, and most had no insurance.” — Bob Travis

“I am an insurance fraud investigator. When a catastrophic event happens, I hear lots of stories about the dishonesty of what I call migrant roofers/contractors.” — Chris Javier

“We should license them like we do plumbers and electrical contractors. It is not a perfect solution, but it is a step in a good direction.” — Bill Lynch

“Unfortunately, those phony contractors flood any market, rarely have an office even in their home state, have no insurance, no employees and no ethics.” — Nelson R. Braddy Jr.

It is absolutely crazy that homeowners have virtually no legal protection against unscrupulous roofers even though the roofers can get a lien placed against the property involved if the homeowner refuses to pay for poor work. — Stephen Lunsford

Meet the charter members of The Watchdog Hall of Fame

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sen. Watson fought for insurance protections for Texas consumers.</span></p>

Sen. Watson fought for insurance protections for Texas consumers.

<p></p><p></p><p><span style="background-color: transparent; font-size: 1em;">Rep. Laubenberg proved herself to be one of the state's top privacy advocates</span></p><p></p><p></p>

Rep. Laubenberg proved herself to be one of the state’s top privacy advocates

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Rep. Capriglione submitted a bill two years ago to oversee roofers in Texas. It died. But he tried. He also paved a path for no-fingerprinting privacy protections.</span></p><p></p>

Rep. Capriglione submitted a bill two years ago to oversee roofers in Texas. It died. But he tried. He also paved a path for no-fingerprinting privacy protections.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Rep. Turner was the number-one advocate for a fair and transparent electricity system. But he's gone from Austin. He's the new mayor of Houston. Who will take his place?</span></p><p></p>

Rep. Turner was the number-one advocate for a fair and transparent electricity system. But he’s gone from Austin. He’s the new mayor of Houston. Who will take his place?

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sen. Schwertner led the fight against businesses that improperly added a surcharge when paying with a plastic card. He was also key in fighting fingerprints being taken of all state drivers.</span></p><p></p>

Sen. Schwertner led the fight against businesses that improperly added a surcharge when paying with a plastic card. He was also key in fighting fingerprints being taken of all state drivers.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sen. Taylor worked on stopping Texas DPS from collecting fingerprints of all Texas drivers.</span></p>

Sen. Taylor worked on stopping Texas DPS from collecting fingerprints of all Texas drivers.

More roofing coverage from The Watchdog

Lon Smith Roofing loses suit over contract’s legality

Catching a roofer who made promises he wouldn’t keep

An indictment for him, and a turning point for me

Use Watchdog’s tips to hire roofers and contractors who are on the level

Who’s behind illegal phone calls to storm victims?

You can’t afford to miss The Watchdog. Follow our latest reporting always at The Watchdog page.

Watchdog Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News is leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.




Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong


Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun website:

Guide to Saving on Your Electricity Bill

Note from the author: The story below served us well for many years, but in September 2017 this Guide to Electricity was completely updated. Please visit the updated version here.


More than anything, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation wants to save you money. The easiest way to save in Texas, I believe, is to shop smart for electricity.

In the first years after deregulation, I was a confused shopper because power always came from a monopoly. Suddenly, dozens of new electricity companies started competing.

Not understanding the system, I overpaid – but I quickly grew tired of that. I decided to educate myself. Eventually, I figured out a system. My Watchdog Nation Guide to Electricity Savings is built on the idea that companies should be judged two ways – by lowest rate and by company reputation. When the stars align, the right company is obvious. (Note: This doesn’t apply to customers in mandatory electricity co-ops or municipal-owned utilities.)

I’ve shared this with readers of my column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and then again in my current column as The Watchdog of The Dallas Morning News. I’ve also shared paper copies of this strategy with at least 100,000 Texans, audiences I’ve spoken to in recent years.

Shopping for electricity is still a role of dice, but my ideas eliminate a lot of risk. Now that most electricity companies have figured out a variety of surprising and often unfair ways to collect extra fees from you, this reputational shopping, as I call it, is more important than ever.

Thousands of Texans have used this Watchdog Nation report by Dave Lieber as the basis for a switch in electric companies – saving thousands of dollars for consumers.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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Here’s The Dallas Morning News Watchdog’s gift to you – The 2015 Guide to Picking the Best Electricity Provider

1. TXU no longer rules. Get over the idea that TXU Energy, most likely your original provider, is the only company that can offer solid, uninterrupted service. And don’t believe the fallacy that TXU customers get serviced first when power goes out. Oncor Electric Delivery is responsible for maintaining the transmission system. Everybody, TXU and its many competitors, uses Oncor to handle repairs in our region.

2. Switching is good. Act under the assumption that you should switch companies every year. The market is constantly changing.

3. You can find better deals and save hundreds of dollars a year with this one decision. Electricity is measured by kWh, or kilowatts-hour. If you pay 8 cents a kWh instead of 12 cents, your monthly electric bill could drop $100 or more.

4. Know your current contract terms. Before you shop, know what you already have. (Surprisingly, most people don’t.) What’s your kWh rate? Check your electric bill. It may be higher than what’s available elsewhere. (In Texas, last week it ranged from 4.9 cents to as high as 13.5 cents.) Also call your provider and ask for the date when your contract expires. Find out whether your rate is fixed or variable. Start planning a possible switch a month before a contract expires.

5. Decide whether you want to play it safe or be a gambler. Do you want to lock in a fixed rate that you can afford for a longer period of time? Or are you willing to take a low price now and understand that a variable or indexed rate could spike depending on market conditions?

6. Conduct a thorough search. Go to this Web site: (If you don’t have an Internet connection, visit your public library and ask a librarian for help. Or ask a friend or relative to help you.) Enter your zip code and start searching. When you find an offer you like, make sure to go to the company’s own website. Sometimes the company’s price might be cheaper than what’s shown on

7. Pick your poison. Deeper in the website you see a search box along the left side. Under “Plan Type” a recommended pick is fixed, but you can also choose a variable or an indexed market rate. (The Watchdog likes fixed since market conditions can grow volatile.) Under “Price,” type in a range from 4 cents to 12 cents. That’s a good spread. Pick a contract length. Fill out the other boxes. Then hit “Refresh Results” on the bottom. Keep trying different combinations to see what the prices are that day. They change often.

8. Study the results. For the selection cited above, several dozen companies recently offered rates in that range. Remember that the lowest rates could come from a company with a poor reputation, but more on that later. Contract lengths varied from one to 36 months. Each service plan comes with links to “Terms of Service,” “Facts Sheet,” “Signup” and “Special Terms.” When you click on these, you learn the nitty-gritty details. Many companies have minimums about the amount of power you must use, or you pay more. Carefully look for language about other fees.

9. Check out your favorite. After you find a company with a rate and contract length you like, learn more about them. One way is to do an Internet search of the company. Place the company’s name in various searches besides these search terms: scam, rip-off and complaints. If the company has a troubled history, find out before you sign up. If only a few results come up from disgruntled customers, don’t worry. But if there are several dozen, continue with a quick search of the company’s Better Business Bureau record. And then, most important, return to and below the name of the company, you’ll see “Complaint Scorecard” and “Complaint History.” Click on those links and learn more about the company.

10. Read the contract. Otherwise, you’ll get blindsided when hidden fees and charges emerge later. Look for termination fees. Contracts must be printed in letters big enough to read.

Final switch tips. When you make your final selection, don’t call your current electricity provider to cancel. Sign up with the new company only. Try to sign up at least 5 to 7 days before your plan expires so the overlap between the two billing cycles is negligible. Some people switch too late and pay higher prices during the transition. If you have a smart meter, the state rule is you must be switched within 48 hours. But 5-7 days is safer.

Remember, there’s no loss of power when you switch. It happens, and you don’t even know it.

Until the bill comes.

Click on "Complaint History" and "Complaint Scorecard" for important information.

Click on “Complaint History” and “Complaint Scorecard” for important information.

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

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A surprising day at the Texas Legislature

I covered my first political race for a daily newspaper in 1975. Bully Mayor Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia won reelection. Since then I’ve covered zoning boards, city councils, legislatures in several states and even events at the White House.

But I saw something today that I’ve never seen before. And it wasn’t pretty.

Let’s start at the beginning.

For those who have followed my Watchdog Nation since it was created in 2008, you know it’s about showing you how easy it is to protect yourself against corporate and criminal bullies – if you know what you’re doing. The impetus for the consumer rights movement came about when I had personal problems of my own.

The first roofer I hired roofed the wrong house.

The second roofer I hired ended up in jail, convicted of criminal theft after he scammed 86 people for $671,000. (Read that story here.) Surely, I had to learn how to protect myself before I could show others how to do it.

So scamming roofers became a pet peeve of mine. (It’s the biggest section in my national-award-winning book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong.)

Over the years, I’ve developed a fondness for the North Texas Roofing Contractors Association. In the absence of a state licensing requirement for Texas roofers, this trade association promotes its own ethics code and pushes hard for honesty in this troubled industry. I even helped them with their video. (Watch here.)

So when the NTRCA told me that Senate Bill 311, sponsored by Sen. John Carona of Dallas, was designed to bring licensing requirements, I cheered!

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong shows you how to protect yourself. The book, now in its third 2013 edition, won two awards for social change.

Senator John Carona (Photo courtesy of

Today, I traveled to Austin to appear before the Texas Senate Business & Commerce Committee, chaired by Sen. Carona, a Republican. I wanted to testify in favor of his bill, something I could never do as a working journalist. Now I can, though. So I did.

At first, Carona was my hero. He stood tall in the committee room at the State Capitol. He made me proud as he strongly argued in favor of his own Senate Bill 311. He apologized when he took extra time to explain it and a companion bill.

When early witnesses criticized his bill, he staunchly defended it. Forcefully. But then something happened.

After the first hour, he announced that “I hear you” to the bills’ critics and said he would drop the roofer licensing portion. He announced he would settle for roofer registration only, probably at a cost of $100 a year for each Texas roofer. Roofers would register and people could easily track them down if something went wrong through this new state registry. At least that’s something.

But then an hour later, after hearing more testimony, he announced he was dropping the meager registration requirement, too.

Keep in mind that Texas licenses electricians and plumbers, and I never hear complaints about them. But roofers? I hear about roofing scams, especially among the elderly, all the time.

So by the time I got up to testify after more than 2 ½ hours of watching him water down his own bill, I was confused. I testified that, after watching what had happened, I was lowering my standards from licensing to registration, a weaker version of enforcement, but at least something designed to protect Texans from roofing scams. Please at least enact the registration requirement, I implored.

Carona told the packed hearing room, “I’ve lowered my standards just this morning.” The room, filled with dark-suited lobbyists, erupted in laughter.

Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber testifies at the State Capitol.

Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber testifies at the State Capitol.

Imagine that. The chairman who forcefully pushes his own bill at 8 a.m, waters it down by 9 a.m., then waters it down even more at 10 a.m. Then less than an hour later, it appears, he has given up on enacting the real teeth in his bill almost entirely. And this is his own committee!

Here’s the takeaway. If you are a Texan and you are hoping the 2013 Legislature will enact new laws designed to protect consumers from corporate bullies and individual scammers, think again. This is a Tea Party legislature, perhaps the most conservative legislature in the nation. What that means, to use the language of these legislators, is that they won’t do anything in this session to “increase the footprint of government.”

That means more Texans will get scammed, and their state government does not care.

Final note: I heard a lot of excuses why roofers shouldn’t be regulated like other professions in today’s testimony.

One witness said consumers should be smarter. (Well, it’s kinda complicated to pick a reputable roofer, as I learned.)

Another said that with hundreds of thousands of roofs put on in Texas each year, only a small portion were scammed. (First off, it’s not so small, as my mail indicates. And second, that’s like saying there are a lot of banks but only a few get robbed. Notice that banks still have security measures in place – bars, guards, alarms. And none of that exists in the roofing industry.)

Still another said that any expansion of government in any way is bad for Texas.

The bill isn’t dead yet, but it suffers from severe poisoning. By its own sponsor.

After the hearing, I gave Senator Carona a copy of my book.

God only knows: I hope he reads it.


Now is the time, if ever, to stop excessive billing practices by the North Texas Tollway Authority

The 2011 Texas Legislature offers lawmakers the chance to provide more oversight of how the North Texas Tollway Authority collects fines and fees on unpaid toll bills.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is preparing a bill that would lower the fees and penalties charged to motorists on top of their tolls.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has already introduced Texas Senate Bill 343 which lowers the amount a toll authority can charge for an administrative fee from $100 to $50. However, NTTA does not charge the maximum fee of $100 — and its bills are still considered extraordinarily high by those who complain.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Motorists complain that a 45-cent toll bill can end up costing hundreds of dollars by the time NTTA is done billing those who haven’t paid.

For the past year, The Watchdog asked readers who complained about the NTTA’s practices to send Nelson their complaints in writing to help lawmakers understand the problem. Nelson’s staff said last week that her office has received 140 written complaints. She is still collecting them.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column learned first, Sen. Nelson explains: “I am working on legislation to lower the cap on administrative fees that the NTTA can charge, and to have those capped fees apply to the entire invoice regardless of how many separate violations are on that invoice.

“My goal is to stop these fees from adding up to unreasonable amounts for vehicle owners, while allowing the tollway agency to reasonably cover their expenses.”

Whatever happens, the tollway authority won’t make it easy. Nelson said a year ago that when she questioned the NTTA, “they’ve been very defensive.”

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

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Criticism comes from the inside, too. Current NTTA Chairman Victor Vandergriff of Arlington complained in a public meeting a year ago that the authority’s budget may depend too much on penalty fees.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Victor Vandergriff

The payment system confuses many drivers. No signs on the toll roads explain the process. The NTTA no longer uses tollbooths. Drivers who keep a TollTag on their windshield must remember to keep enough cash in their accounts.

For vehicles lacking tags, license plates are photographed and bills are mailed after the fifth transaction. Car owners billed by mail are charged 50 percent more than what TollTag users pay.

Motorists are supposed to keep their addresses up to date with the state so the bills arrive properly. Sometimes, though, car owners say they never received initial bills but learned later that they owe hundreds of dollars.

The NTTA says that it mails the letters and that if they don’t come back, it considers them delivered.

In October, I reported how a woman went to jail for 27 hours for failing to appear in court for an unpaid toll bill that she estimates was for $11.

She said she never received the bill.

I won’t defend scofflaws who don’t pay their tolls. As a TollTag account holder, I certainly don’t want to cover other people’s costs. But I was curious about how much the biggest toll runners owe. A Public Information Act request to the NTTA provided the answer.

The NTTA won’t release names, but its records show that the No. 1 scofflaw owes $72,000, followed by four drivers who each owe more than $60,000.

How you can owe that much is beyond me. The NTTA won’t say how much is for tolls and how much is for fees and penalties.

For most customers who get into trouble, though, it’s small tolls and big add-ons. Two motorists have complained to me that although they tried to pay their bills, the NTTA still sent their accounts to its collection agency.

David Spruiell of Arlington says his toll bill was for $8.56, but “I obviously misread the bill.” He mailed a check for $9.56 — $1 more. The authority sent the check back with an explanation that he had overpaid. He says he tried to call twice but gave up when the lines were tied up. Next he got a notice from a collection agency that he owes $208.

When he called to complain, an NTTA staffer told him that he could negotiate to pay less. “This is a one-time offer,” he was told. “I’ll take $138 if you pay today.”

He didn’t take the offer.

“It’s not like I didn’t try to pay,” he says. “A late fee of $10 would be acceptable, but not $200. I don’t want to have a warrant issued against me, but this is crazy and reeks of abusive misuse of a public agency.”

The NTTA says it is not equipped to handle overpayments on its pay-by-mail system.

Roger Beaman of Mansfield acknowledges that he paid his $10.45 bill three days late. His problem? He forgot to write his car’s license plate number or invoice number on the check. He has two cars in his household. When the NTTA received the check, it credited it to the wrong car.

One car had a $10.45 bill, and the other had zero. But the NTTA put the $10.45 into the zero account, giving it a credit, while the other account went delinquent.

When he called to complain, a staffer promised to fix it but never did, he says. He kept trying. One NTTA staffer told him that if he sent $7.95, it would go away. He did as he was told, but that didn’t work either. A collection agency seeks $182.

“I can say their check-handling skills with my account would get a failing grade,” he says.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

NTTA spokeswoman Kimberly Jackson says, “It is important that customers contact us early if they have any questions so we can work with them to resolve the issue quickly and at the lowest cost for the customer.”

Jackson says the NTTA plans to make an improvement: “We will be implementing a program in 2011 through a track-and-trace program with the U.S. Postal Service. We soon will be able to track when a letter was delivered.”

That will help, but it can’t come soon enough. The NTTA builds massive road projects, but it seems to have problems with the mail. When I called last month to order new Velcro strips for my worn TollTag, the NTTA sent me a replacement set.

Three different times.

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Read the previous Watchdog Nation report called “Here’s how to take back some of the authority from the North Texas Tollway Authority.”

Read the previous Watchdog Nation reported called “Watchdog Nation says: Give ’em hell, Victor.”

Read about the woman thrown in jail at “Women goes to jail for unpaid toll.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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At Texas Legislature, clouds roll in during Sunshine Week

A Colleyville man didn’t have a great Sunshine Week, which was created to promote open government. Louis Womack recently read in the Star-Telegram about an internal investigation at the Colleyville Police Department, and he sent city officials written questions.

Is the investigation complete? What was the outcome? How much did it cost?

Good questions from a taxpayer watchdogging his city.

But the answer he received perplexed him: “Please be advised that the Public Information Act does not obligate the city to respond to questions,” Assistant City Manager Kelly Cooper wrote, adding that Womack could refine his open-records request to seek documents.

Only Womack didn’t file an open-records request; he just asked questions. He didn’t know that officials don’t have to provide answers, just documents.

City spokeswoman Mona Gandy explains: “Typically, we would have gone to some effort to explain how you make a public information request. That’s not what happened in this case. We’re going to consider this a lesson learned.”

This week, the city added language to its Web site to explain open-records procedures.

The Sunshine state?

When it comes to making public records available, Texans do have something to celebrate this Sunshine Week, which ends Saturday. A recent survey by several journalism organizations examined how good a job all 50 states do of making records available on the Internet. Texas received a perfect score, the only state to do so.

Cue The Watchdog’s applause!

But The Watchdog can’t celebrate after examining some bills filed at the Legislature.

“A lot of bills scale back the availability of public information,” says Fred Hartman, chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association/Texas Press Association Legislative Advisory Committee.

Here’s one: House Bill 3641 by freshman Rep. Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels. It would allow a government entity to determine whether someone requesting open records is an “abusive requestor” who submits requests “to harass, abuse, or waste public funds and/or time of public officials or employees.”

The bill allows a government entity to sue to stop the requestor and halt the release of information for up to 90 days.

Miller did not return a call. But Comal County Judge Danny Scheel told The Watchdog that he asked Miller to file the bill to stop Central Texas newspaper publisher Doug Kirk from filing what Scheel considers harassing requests.

Some people, he said, “purposely clog up our systems with open-records requests to be able to get off our backs. These are the kind of people we want.”

Scheel said 90 percent of the requests to the county come from Kirk, who runs weeklies in Bulverde and Canyon Lake and who unsuccessfully ran against Scheel. Kirk doesn’t always pick up and pay for information he requests, Scheel said.

“We’ve been dealing with this monkey for years,” the judge added.

Kirk told me that the county stalls and so he gets what he needs elsewhere. “They dodge the questions I ask,” he said.

Hartman, a newspaper executive based outside Houston, said that the bill would punish a number of people for the actions of one.

Here are other open-government bills on The Watchdog worry list:

Senate Bill 280 (Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth) would make public employees’ home addresses, home telephone numbers, dates of birth and Social Security numbers confidential. Open-records advocates say they have no desire to know a Social Security number. A home address and date of birth, however, are important identifiers that allow watchdogs to search government databases and find, for example, whether a person is double dipping with two public jobs.

The public would face greater difficulty learning about government nepotism and the background of public employees, including any criminal records, too. “We strongly oppose this,” Hartman says.

House Bill 649 (Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas) would allow property owners to remove their names from appraisal district public records posted online.

“There’s no compelling reason to do this,” Hartman says. “There are no problems” with the information in the public domain.

If the bill passes, the public would not be able to find out, for example, if political cronies got sweetheart appraisals from crooked assessors.

Elected officials and others could disguise bribes through property transfers that nobody would ever know about.

Senate Bill 375 (John Carona, R-Dallas) would allow the Transportation Department to keep specific vehicle accident records confidential.

Texans could not learn about the most dangerous bridges, intersections and roadways, which was the intent of the original request for the data, says Brian Collister, a San Antonio TV reporter and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“This huge, great resource on motor-vehicle accidents would be sealed off from the public,” he says.

Hartman says the number of bills cutting off information is alarming because “the more people know what our government does, the more effective and responsive it can be.”

Other worrisome bills Here are other bills that could hinder public oversight:

  • Senate Bill 253 (Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls) would allow county and municipal governments to award contracts worth up to $50,000 without public bids. The limit is now $25,000.
  • Senate Bill 624 (Royce West, D-Dallas) would allow changes of $50,000 or less to school district contracts without school board approval — and public notice.
  • Senate Bill 460 (Mario Gallegos Jr., D-Galena Park) would keep secret some information pertaining to personnel hearings for police and firefighters.
  • Senate Bill 1127 (Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio) would keep secret some information about components used in creating customized drugs and medical devices at pharmacies.

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