The Texas Turnpike Authority last week voted to seek a ruling from the state's attorney general over whether the agency could sell the financially troubled Houston Ship Channel Bridge to another entity.

Advisers to turnpike officials say the ruling is critical to whether the authority can pursue a possible sale of the bridge to the Harris County Toll Road Authority or another entity.

At issue is a law that requires all turnpike projects to become property of the state after the bonds are retired.

"If the bonds are defeased so another agency can take over the bridge, the question becomes whether the project is then supposed to be deeded to the state," said one official. "Some people don't think it's possible under existing law, but that is up to the attorney general now."

Under one proposal, a new agency would issue up to $275 million of revenue bonds to buy the project and developed new toll-paid roads leading up to the project. Harris County officials have not yet committed to the idea but are involved in discussions.

The proposal is one idea being discussed by the authority and the Texas Bond Review Board as an alternative to a $210 million debt restructuring designed to avert a default of the bridge's unrated junior lien bonds in 1996.

Federal judges have thrown out a lawsuit that sought to block Texas schools from collecting property taxes this year under a system that was ruled unconstitutional in January by the Texas Supreme Court.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans last week denied a taxpayer's lawsuit that sought to block collections. A three-judge panel cited a federal law prohibiting district courts from interfering with tax collections by a state when other remedies are available.

State officials said the ruling was a victory insuring that schools would be funded until the Texas Legislature meets early next year to try and devise a new school finance law for the fourth time.

The Texas Supreme Court earlier this year struck down a wealth-sharing school finance law that allowed tax dollars from one district to be used in another school. The court gave lawmakers until next June to enact a new, constitutional system.

"It's very encouraging," said Gov. Ann Richards of the ruling. "It says very clearly we can collect the tax, and no one has to have that as a concern."

But the lawyer for the taxpayers, Jim Keahey of Austin, said he may appeal the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court or start a new action in the state district courts in Texas.

"My advice to all Texas taxpayers is, ~Do not pay this tax,'" he said. "The litigation is not over."

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