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Allan Ritter

The water campaign begins

The most high profile constitutional amendment now has a campaign behind it.

Water Texas PAC

Supporters are laying the groundwork for an aggressive effort to educate voters and drown out opposition with roughly one month before early voting starts. A coalition of political action committees and business groups are leading the push.

The strategy will be bankrolled by a combination of those forces. A political action committee named Water Texas created specifically for the campaign is being led by House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland.

Like any high-powered campaign, the political playbook for the water proposition is set to include television and radio ads, direct mailers, phone banks, op-ed pieces and stump-like speeches, as well as meetings with local leaders. A heavy dose of Web and social media activity also is part of the formula.

In all, supporters are gearing for a potential multimillion-dollar campaign.

“We can’t risk losing this election. It’s too important for the future of the state,” said Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, one of a number of groups backing the strategy. “This is just like any candidate who has to go out there and do the blocking and tackling to make sure they win an election.”

I think this is likely to pass – the advocates are much better funded and organized than the opposition, most people inherently understand the need to Do Something about water in Texas, and most amendments get passed as a matter of course. But who knows? The Water for Texas people have a Facebook page and a webpage, and I found another pro-Prop 6 Facebook page out there while looking around. While I don’t think this is the best thing ever, it’s good enough for me to support. What do you think about it?

Water, water, not so fast

So much for that.

A major bill on the top of Gov. Rick Perry’s priority list that would authorize spending billions of dollars on state water projects faltered in the Texas House on Monday night after a contentious debate over where to pull the money from.

“My understanding is it’s doorknob dead,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, said after debate on the measure, which was backed by Speaker Joe Straus, was halted over a legislative technicality.

[…]

Ritter’s bill, House Bill 11, would have taken $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund — a multi-billion dollar reserve of mostly oil and gas taxes — and spent it on water-supply projects, in an effort to help the state withstand future droughts.

Another Ritter bill the House passed earlier this month, House Bill 4, would create a special fund to administer the money.

But HB 11’s backers faced an uphill battle to get enough votes, because drawing from the Rainy Day Fund requires a higher bar — 100 votes rather than the usual 76 votes — to pass.

Democrats’ objections were grounded in the argument that if the Rainy Day Fund gets used for water, it should also be raided for other purposes like public education. Some far-right conservatives, meanwhile, worried about drawing at all from the Rainy Day Fund, which they say should be reserved for emergencies.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, ultimately avoided a vote on HB 11 by raising a point of order, a legislative term for a procedural problem with the bill. Ritter said the bill in its current form is now dead; Perry has previously threatened to call a special session if lawmakers cannot find a way to fund water projects.

If lawmakers do not provide the funding, “I think we’re back in special session, but that’s above my paygrade,” Ritter said.

The Senate, meanwhile, has already passed a measure to move $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund into public education and water and transportation projects.

The House had previously passed a bill to create the fund, which the Senate has now also passed, but this was the bill to actually put money in the fund. The Senate also voted to tap the Rainy Day Fund for this and other purposes, but the House was the heavier lift. Bipartisan support was required, which meant as Burka noted that the House Democrats had leverage. He thinks they overplayed their hand, but the reason their support was so badly needed was because of ideological fractures on the GOP side.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to several of the state’s political leaders including Perry, announced Sunday it was opposed to the bill.

“The 83rd Texas Legislature has on hand more than $8 billion in new general revenue to pay for increased spending in areas like Medicaid, roads, water and education,” foundation president Brooke Rollins said. “But instead of setting priorities to make the new spending fit within available revenue, the Legislature appears ready to spend far more than this.”

In an unusual disagreement with the group, Perry made the case for a big one-time withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund for water projects in his op-ed. The governor, who considers himself a fiscal conservative, has made economic development his signature issue. And if water gets tight, he said businesses relocations to Texas would dry up.

“The good news is that current economic conditions and available balances in the Rainy Day Fund provide a unique opportunity for the state to partner with communities by offering financing to develop and implement new water supplies,” Perry wrote in support of a one-time transfer of $2 billion from the fund.

Asked about the split among conservatives, Rich Parsons, the governor’s spokesman, said: “We have infrastructure needs in the state that need to be met.” He added: “I think Texans recognize the need for action and expect state leaders to take action, and that’s precisely what the governor is doing.”

Hammond, of the Texas Association of Business, said Monday in support of HB 11: “I think the business community is pretty much united. … It’s necessary [because] unless we do something more than what we’re doing now, in 50 years demand will be up by about 22 percent and supply will be down by about 10 percent. That’s a disaster.”

“It’s already being used against us,” Hammond said, “that Texas is in a drought and they’re not doing anything about it.”

When Rick Perry and Bill Hammond are on the pragmatic, get-stuff-done side, you know how far off into the weeds the enforcers of “conservative” purity have gone. They opposed using the Rainy Day Fund because they oppose spending money – the purpose for the spending and the need it addresses don’t matter. Too many Republican legislators in the thrall of these hegemons, and this is the result.

So now what happens?

Even with the collapse of Ritter’s bill, there are other options. The Senate, which would rather put the politically difficult question before voters, has approved a resolution calling for constitutional amendments that would make available nearly $6 billion from the rainy day fund for transportation and water projects, as well as education.

Another possibility may be House Bill 19 by Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo. The bill would draw $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund for water and transportation projects.

“This issue is too important to leave its fate uncertain,” Perry said after the demise of HB 11. “I will work with lawmakers to ensure we address this need in a fiscally responsible manner.”

A special session is a possibility, since Perry has identified the water infrastructure fund as one of his top priorities. Also possible is the for the House budget negotiators to rip up everything they’ve done so far and appropriate the money from general revenue, which is what the slash-and-burn crowd is advocating. That would of course means however much money would then need to be taken away from everything else in the budget, which I don’t think the Senate will go along with. Some other bill may come to the rescue – where there’s a sufficiently broad caption, there’s a way. I think this is more likely to be a temporary setback than a “doornail dead” situation, but we’ll see. PDiddie, EoW, the Observer, and the TSTA have more.

Water infrastructure bill passes

This is good.

The Texas House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to create a revolving, low-interest loan program to help finance a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects for the drought-stricken state.

Lawmakers approved House Bill 4 on a 146-2 vote, but left the question of how much seed money to provide the program for another day.

State Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican who filed the bill, said a $2 billion capitalization could finance the state’s entire longrange water plan, which identifies 562 projects over the next half-century to satisfy the demands of a rapidly growing population.

The startup money would come from the state’s unencumbered Rainy Day Fund under separate legislation filed by Ritter. His HB 11 is pending in a House subcommittee on budget transparency and reform.

Ritter said the new fund could leverage $27 billion over the next 50 years for water-related infrastructure. The loan program, as designed, would allow the state to continue lending money for projects as earlier loans are paid back.

“This will work,” Ritter told House members to close a four-hour debate.

See here for some background on this program, which is called SWIFT, the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas. The good news about this is that conservation efforts were made an explicit part of SWIFT, and the forces of nihilism were beaten back, at least for the day. The Observer explains.

Despite the bill’s easy passage (there were 146 ‘ayes’ and just two ‘nos’), tea party-oriented members launched a challenge to key provisions in the bill-and spectacularly failed in what was another defeat for ideological enforcers like Michael Quinn Sullivan and Texans for Prosperity’s Peggy Venable, whose involvement in the spoiler effort lurked just beneath the surface of the debate.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) led an effort to remove a key water-conservation provision. HB 4 has earned the support of some conservationists because Ritter included a stipulation that at least 20 percent of the funding go toward water conservation. King’s amendment would’ve gutted that requirement. King’s fellow legislators didn’t buy it though; the amendment was killed with a vote of 104 to 41.

Rep. Van Taylor’s (R-Plano) proposed amendments didn’t go over so well either. Taylor, for one, wanted to ban the transfer of Rainy Day Fund money to get the water bank rolling.

Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), in a moment of political drama, called Taylor out for being what he called “disingenuous.” He asked Taylor if, should his proposed amendment pass, he intended to vote for HB 4. Taylor replied that he would still not vote for the bill.

Larson blew up. “If you’re not going to vote for the bill and you’re offering up amendments, I think everyone in this body needs to recognize that. The idea of an amendment is to make the bill better … and what you’re doing I believe is disingenuous, to step up and offer amendments for political reasons, to try to gain some kind of favor instead of trying to make the bill legitimately better.” The House shot Taylor’s amendment down with a vote of 127 to 18.

Good for you, Rep. Larson. There are legitimate questions about using the Rainy Day Fund for this purpose, but that’s not where Rep. Taylor was coming from. The puppet masters behind his amendment were as always primarily interested in spending as little money as possible on anything, regardless of its merit or value. If the startup funds for SWIFT come out of general revenue instead of the Rainy Day Fund, there’s that much less money for other things, like schools and Medicaid and everything else. It was a bad amendment, offered in bad faith, and it got what it deserved. But that won’t be the end of it, because there’s a separate bill (HB11) to authorize the transfer of funds from the RDF, and of course the Senate hasn’t discussed its companion bill yet. There are still plenty of opportunities for the forces of darkness to do their thing. PDiddie and the Trib have more.

Meet SWIFT

SWIFT is the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas, which would be created by the big water bills of the session, HB4 and SB4. Basically, this is a plan to create a water infrastructure bank, to finance various water projects that the state needs at low interest, with some seed money from the Rainy Day Fund to get started. So far the proposals have been met with approval by the various stakeholders.

A parade of Texas mayors on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to invest $2 billion in reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects.

Houston’s Annise Parker, San Antonio’s Julian Castro and other mayors said the passage of House Bill 4, which would create a fund to help pay for water-related infrastructure, is necessary to satisfy the demands of residents and businesses.

“We are not going to wait, but it sure would be nice to have the state with us,” said Parker, who said Houston is moving forward on water projects. “If the rest of the state does not make the same efforts we have, we may lose our competitive advantage.”

[…]

State Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican who filed the bill, said a $2 billion capitalization could finance the state’s entire long-range water plan, which identifies 562 projects at a cost of $53 billion over the next half-century.

The initial $2 billion would come from the state’s rainy day fund

The projects would be selected by the Texas Water Development Board but would be locally owned and controlled, Ritter emphasized.

“They need help in what I call ‘getting over the hump,'” he said of the financing challenge water providers face with projects that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to complete.

There’s a lot of money at stake, and any time there’s a lot of money at stake, there are many competing interests for it.

“We can’t afford to pit one [group] against another,” said Laura Huffman, of the Nature Conservancy. “A growing state is going to want to eat, drink and turn the lights on.”

Much will depend on whether key lawmakers—Rep. Allan Ritter (R-Nederland) and Fraser in particular—can craft a fair structure for distributing what will likely be billions of dollars over the coming decades.

“I think it’s like most of the issues that come before this body,” said state Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels). “Follow the money.” Austin American-Statesman reporter Asher Price did just that. He found that one of the organizations behind the push for a state water bank, H2O4Texas, is funded by “industries that stand to benefit from massive projects to move water around the state.”

That’s not terribly surprising but suggests that legislators will have to be careful to guard against allowing the water bank to turn into a slush fund.

The key word is: prioritization. The state water plans lists 562 distinct water projects, a wish list drafted by hundreds of “stakeholders” organized into 16 regional water planning groups. Those projects are the essence of the plan. But how do you pick which ones to fund? What form does the funding take—grants, loans, etc? Which projects get funded first? Do conservation-focused projects receive a leg up or is the money going to flow into new reservoirs?

Ritter’s legislation, House Bill 4, has been praised by environmentalists for requiring that at least 20 percent of the funds go toward water conservation.

Sen. Fraser’s legislation, Senate Bill 4, would create a fund outside of the state treasury but would put the Texas Water Development Board in charge of prioritizing the projects. But Fraser repeatedly complained today that the board is ill-equipped to take on such a huge task. Fraser said he’d had trouble getting a simple list of water-supply projects that the board considers top priorities.

Under Senate Bill 4, the Water Development Board would be run by three full-time commissioners instead of six part-timers. It would also set up a nine-member advisory committee to recommend water projects to the full board. Other senators, however, piled on Fraser’s proposal, leading him to stress that it was a work in progress and likely to be negotiated until the bitter end.

This AP report goes into more detail about conservation and highlights a potential stumbling block for the legislation.

Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, told the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that it was critical that the state emphasizes conservation and ensures enough water is left behind for the eco-system. He pointed out that large-scale water projects, such as new reservoirs, can have a negative impact on the environment.

“In 1968, the State Water Plan predicted that by the year 2020 you would need 32 million acre-feet of water. Of course it’s almost 2020 now, and we’re only using 18 million acre-feet,” he said. “It’s critical that in planning for the next 50 years, we are flexible and we’re careful not to burden Texans in the future with huge debts for projects we might not need.”

He pointed out that San Antonio grew by more than 65 percent while still using the same amount of water and said other cities could follow that model. He said plans are for the state to meet 34 percent of future water needs through conservation and called on the committee to set aside that much of the new water fund for projects that save water.

Just fixing leaky water mains could save enough water for 2.7 million Texans, Metzger said.

[…]

So far no group has come out against creating what would be called the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas, or SWIFT. But the measure may require Republican lawmakers to vote in favor of lifting the state’s constitutional spending limit, which many conservatives do not want on their record.

Have I mentioned before that artificial spending and revenue caps are stupid and destructive? This is another illustration of why. The issue here is whether appropriating money from the Rainy Day Fund would count towards the revenue cap, which mandates that spending can only grow so much from one biennium to the next. Use of the Rainy Day Fund wasn’t originally intended to be included in such calculations, but the fanatics who rule over Republican primaries don’t care for such subtleties, so the issue remains a potential roadblock for doing the things the Lege has said it wants to do.

The Lege is going to have to spend some money

Whether they want to or not, there are a lot of issues that will be demanding attention and money from the Legislature when they convene in January. For example, there’s water.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday the state’s water supply will be among his priorities after years of inaction by lawmakers. In the previous session, the House balked at two bills intended to create the first permanent funding source for a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other projects to avoid grave shortages in 2060.

The plan would cost an estimated $53 billion, which proved too much for a spending-averse Legislature two years ago.

“That’s always where the conversation breaks down,” Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said of the price tag. “With water, the numbers can be so daunting that it is tempting to throw up your hands.

“We need to begin making some progress. I don’t expect to complete it in one year, but we do need to take the first step.”

[…]

In the 2011 session, state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican, proposed a tap fee that water users would pay each month for the next 15 years. He also sought the transfer of $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, which was created to help low-income people pay utility bills.

The two bills, which supporters said would have generated $27 billion for the plan, died in a House committee.

Straus did not say how he would help fund the plan, but suggested all options would be on the table.

“I do not want to see a newspaper headline saying a company is uprooting from Texas to move to a water-rich state because we have not addressed this issue,” he said. “Without water, we cannot have a good future for this state.

“We have decisions, but we have no choice.”

The scary thing isn’t the price of this project, or that its price tag is triple what it was a decade ago but that the recent amelioration of the drought has removed any sense of urgency from the Lege to take action. The time to do something was in 2011 when the state was being slow roasted like a bag of coffee beans, but now that we’ve had some rain it’ll be easy enough for spending-averse legislators to rationalize procrastinating again. Despite Speaker Straus’ apparent determination, I will not be surprised if this gets punted.

There’s roads.

The Texas Association of Business has thrown its support behind a $50 hike in the annual fee Texas drivers pay to register vehicles, with the money earmarked for new transportation projects. Meanwhile, some key lawmakers favor dedicating to roads the sales tax from vehicle purchases that Texans already pay.

As the 2013 legislative session approaches, transportation advocates have been trying to draw more attention to severe shortages in road funding, stressing that delaying road work around the state will lead to more congested roads and more expensive fixes later on.

“The cost of doing nothing is very expensive,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month.

[…]

“Clearly this is a difficult task, but the business community in Texas feels like it’s spending an awful lot of time waiting in traffic,” Hammond said. “This would be new money coming in for maybe $15-16 billion of bonds for road construction.”

Rather than raising a current fee, Nichols wants to take a tax that many Texans already pay and dedicate the revenue to roads. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicate the sales tax on new and used vehicle purchases to expanding and maintaining the state highway system and to paying off transportation-related debt. The money currently goes into the state’s catch-all general revenue fund.

The change could be phased in slowly over 10 years so as not to “wreck the budget,” Nichols said. Though the amount of revenue raised for roads would be small at first, knowing that the revenue stream would grow would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to move quickly on perhaps $10 billion worth of new projects, he said.

Nichols predicted that the public would back such a measure because it makes intuitive sense.

As long as you overlook the fact that it won’t bring any new revenue into the system, thus meaning that other parts of the budget would be sacrificed for roads, then sure, it makes sense. It’s just undoing what’s been done before, with funding for things like DPS coming out of the gasoline tax. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to the inflation rate for construction is still the best option, but the increased registration fee at least has the merit of being new revenue and having some support behind it to begin with.

All that’s without even getting into Medicaid, which remember was underfunded by five billion dollars last biennium, or public education, for which an array of freshman Republicans are claiming they support despite the $5 billion they cut from it. (State Rep. Mike Villarreal passed along this handy chart of how much those cuts affected each ISD in Texas.) Whether we expand Medicaid or not, we will be spending more money on it because we have such a large number of poor, otherwise-uninsured residents. I have no idea how the next Legislature is going to deal with these issues – burying their heads in the sand and denying the existence of the problem is always the strong favorite, with obfuscating the issue a close runner-up – but like it or not, they’re there to be dealt with.

It sure would be nice if The Lege would do something about the drought

Don’t count on it, though.

Most of Texas has emerged from its driest year on record, but the turn in weather likely will dampen legislative interest in the state’s water supply.

Water planners, policy experts and scientists said Monday at the Texas Water Summit that they do not expect lawmakers to address increasing water demands when they convene in January because the most populated areas no longer are in severe drought.

[…]

In 2011 alone, the state lost 100 cubic kilometers of water, or 70 Lake Travises, because of evaporation, said David Maidment, director of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

That, however, was not dry enough for lawmakers to find a way to fund water development beyond asking voters for authority to issue debt through bonds. The state’s water plan calls for a $3 billion investment in more reservoirs, desalination plants and pipelines, among other projects, to avoid shortages during the next 50 years.

“The challenge is to convince ratepayers and politicians that it is worth the cost,” said Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator for water science and conservation at the Texas Water Development Board. “A lot of Texans take it for granted that water comes out of the faucet.”

Here’s a reminder about the state’s long term water plan. The story says that per capita water capacity peaked in the 1970s after several reservoirs were built and have declined since then. A multi-year drought like the one we had in the 1950s that spurred the construction of those new reservoirs, would be devastating. The fact that we’ve had a good amount of rain so far this year doesn’t mean we’re out of danger for that. There was a bill to deal with this in the Lege last year, but it involved imposing a fee to raise the money for the capital projects, and that never went anywhere. If the drought has mostly eased by next year, it seems unlikely that there will be any sense of urgency on this; certainly, with Rick Perry pushing budget suicide pact, it’s hard to see where the leadership to undertake something like this will come from. If drought conditions have worsened by then…boy, I don’t even want to think about that. The TM Daily Post has more.

There’s still a drought out there

Despite the rain, the state of Texas is still mostly in drought conditions, and the threat will remain for the next several years.

Most of Central and East Texas beat long odds with heavy rains this winter, but experts warned state lawmakers Thursday that the drought is far from over.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said that the second year of a La Niña cycle — cooler temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that influence global weather patterns — produces a dry winter for Texas “4 times out of 5.”

But Nielsen-Gammon said it’s a coin toss whether the recent winning streak will continue. “The (short-term) outlook is not particularly dire or good,” he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a summary of drought conditions that was updated Thursday, showed how quickly conditions can change. As recently as 
Oct. 4, 88 percent of the state was categorized as being in “exceptional” drought, the most severe level. On Thursday’s map, about 18 percent of the state remained in that category.

[…]

Nielsen-Gammon said that most of the winter rains fell on the most populated areas of the state.

“The people of Texas are going to tend to forget a drought is still going on in many parts of Texas,” he said.

In parts of the Panhandle and far West Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said, the drought has gotten worse this winter.

Despite the rains and the short-term forecast, Nielsen-Gammon said he still believes Texas remains in a long-term drought cycle.

“We are more likely to get droughts over the next decade than the one after that,” he said.

Lake levels remain down, and while conservation remains the best strategy for both the short and long term, such planning is often inconsistent and sometimes contradictory.

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, urged lawmakers to maximize the state’s existing water supplies.

He testified that drought contingency plans are drafted locally and filed with the state without the state reviewing “how much water is actually being saved.”

He said that causes inconsistencies in how cities — including neighboring communities drawing from the same water supplies — handle restrictions on water use.

“It’s (a problem) everywhere,” Ritter said. “It’s definitely an issue we will be dealing with.”

For example, Kramer said, voluntary restrictions on water use were never used in Corpus Christi because the restrictions aren’t triggered until the city’s reservoir reaches 50 percent of capacity. Kramer suggested that is too low and that weather conditions — not just reservoir levels — should be part of the equation.

“You may well be into a drought before the reservoir reaches the trigger,” he said.

Likewise, Kramer said Houston was restricting its residents to twice-a-week watering of their lawns while selling water to neighboring cities that didn’t have those limits.

He said water wholesalers, whether public suppliers like Houston or private companies, don’t have a financial incentive to restrict water sales.

I don’t see how we can hope to effectively deal with this without some state level regulations. Especially now that some parts of the state are feeling flush, the incentives are all out of whack. It may go against the grain for some folks – Rep. Ritter was clearly not thrilled with the idea – but I don’t see how you can prevent shortsighted usage when there’s a buck to be made without them.

The Trib also covered this hearing, and added another dimension to it.

“This is the biggest threat we have to our economy right now,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, speaking about water supplies. In 2011, he added, “the bell went off, and either we’re going to do something or we’re not.”

How big a threat to the economy is this? This big.

Texas’ worst drought in history just got worse, with new estimates putting the agricultural toll at $7.6 billion for 2011 – $2.4 billion above the original loss estimate, which already was a record.

The recently updated estimate from Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists was $3.5 billion more than the losses for the previous record drought in 2006.

“When you are one of the biggest agricultural-producing states in the nation, a monumental drought causes enormous losses,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

If we’re not adequately prepared for when this happens again, we’re going to be that much worse off.

The state of water in Texas

The Statesman has a long story about the state of water in Texas and its outlook for the future. Short summary: We’re going to need more than what we’re capable of getting now, and it’s going to cost a lot of money to bridge the shortfall.

2012 State Water Plan

“For most of our recent history, we just treated (water) as if we had an unlimited supply of it. We’re finding to our dismay that that’s not true,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University.

One clear indication that Texans need to rethink how they value water came when the state asked for $53 billion in improvements to prepare the state for a record-breaking drought in the next 50 years.

The cheapest strategy in the Texas Water Development Board’s 2012 water plan is conservation, which would account for 24 percent of the new supply by 2060; the costliest, desalination, would account for about 3.4 percent of the new supply.

But the prospect of a future crisis doesn’t necessarily make consumers more willing to open their wallets.

“It can be hard to convince ratepayers that they need to pay more money to get that security in their supply,” said Robert Mace, the board’s deputy executive administrator for water science and conversation.

It may come as little surprise, then, that lawmakers have failed to ensure sustainable funding for the water plan.

“I don’t think there’s been a greater dereliction of duty” than failing to fund Texas water needs, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas , said Jan. 10 in a Business and Commerce Committee hearing, where lawmakers were told that a dwindling water supply can also affect the state power grid, as most energy production relies heavily on water to cool power plants.

You can find the 2012 State Water Plan here if you want a little light reading for your bedside table. We’ve talked about a lot of this stuff before as well – conservation, desalinization, reuse and recycling, infrastructure, and so forth. I’ll refer you again to the Drop By Drop and Sprayed Away reports, as well as the 2011 Regional Water Plan. I truly believe we need to be doing a lot more now to push conservation, because it’s not only the cheapest solution, it also buys us time for implementing the solutions that require capital investment. I strongly believe in tiering water prices in a way that rewards those who use less and charges a premium to those who use the most. I also believe in educating people about ways they can easily reduce their own water usage. One example is capturing rainwater for later use on gardens or lawns. You can buy a decent-sized rain barrel for $150 or less and use your sprinkler less. Every little bit helps, and if you want to avoid seeing future surcharges on your water bill, you’ll need to start thinking of what you can do. NewsTaco has some further reading.

No funding for long term water needs

We know what we need to do, we just don’t want to pay for it.

On paper, at least, Texas is well-prepared to meet the water needs of its rapidly expanding population — even when Mother Nature lays down a harsh and lengthy drought.

The price tag on the plan: $53 billion. State money allocated: $1.4 billion.

If there were funds, Texas would be able to build the dams, reservoirs, pipelines, wells and other infrastructure that would ideally avoid tight water-use restrictions imposed on residents, farmers and ranchers during times of drought while also guaranteeing there would be enough water for the state’s rapidly growing population — even in 2060.

Instead, now, more than four years after the latest blueprint was published, deadlines have passed with some work barely begun, and many projects never started. Meanwhile, lakes are shrinking, rivers are drying up and temperatures are rising.

“The longer you delay implementation, the costs are going to go up,” said Carolyn Brittin, a planning official at the Texas Water Development Board, which must publish a revised plan by January.

The Lege, of course, failed to do anything about this. As Forrest Wilder wrote back in May, there was a bill in place, there just wasn’t enough support for it.

Even as an historical drought grips the whole state, a measure to pump money into the underfunded state water plan has failed at the Texas Legislature. Rep. Allan Ritter, a Democrat-turned-Republican from rainy Southeast Texas, said the legislation died in the Calendars Committee because it included new fees unacceptable to the Republican supermajority in the House.

“We’re fighting so many fiscal battles,” Ritter said. “I just can’t get the members to lock onto it.”

Ritter’s idea was to finally come up with a permanent source of funding for a backlog of water-supply projects contemplated by the state water plan. By 2060, it’s estimated that Texas will need to spend $52 billion to avoid water shortages. But Ritter’s approach, consisting of two funding sources, never had a chance.

One, he wanted to impose a new monthly “tap fee” on people and businesses – an extra $1 per month for residential water bills. Two, he wanted to take $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, a much-abused pot of money that was supposed to help poor people pay for their utility bills. Now it mostly just sits in an account to help the Legislature balance the budget.

The proposed changes would’ve been put to the voters in November as a proposed constitutional amendment. The money would’ve helped finance hundreds of proposed projects, including new reservoirs, water conservation efforts, pipelines, and desalination.

I disagree with raiding the System Benefit Fund, but that sort of chicanery was par for the course this session. Is there anyone out there who thinks Ritter’s plan would not have been ratified by the voters? Is there anyone who thinks that if the Lege knew then what it knows now about how bad this drought would be that they wouldn’t have taken this more seriously? Nothing like looming catastrophe to focus the mind, I guess. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the next Lege will finally tackle this.

What do yachts and smokeless tobacco have in common?

They’re both getting tax cuts from the Republican legislature.

Members of the Texas House on Wednesday approved a bill to lower a tax on Red Man and other brands of loose-leaf chewing tobacco.

When Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland , laid out House Bill 2599, one freshman House member from Central Texas couldn’t believe his ears.

“I just had to clarify. It’s cutting taxes to chewing tobacco?” a shocked Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, asked from the floor.

Isaac was the only member to question the measure, which passed 83-53.

“We just created an incentive for people to use cancer-causing products,” Isaac said after the bill was approved. “When we have the fiscal problems that we have, it’s wrong to be cutting taxes on products like chewing tobacco.”

Here’s HB2599. For reasons unclear to me, it drew support and opposition from both parties. It does have a fiscal note that claims it will have no significant fiscal impact on the state, because as the story notes there will likely be more people chawing. As if that were something to celebrate. There are days when I really don’t understand the Legislature.

Ritter switches

The Republicans get their 100th member.

State Rep. Allan Ritter of Nederland said Saturday that he will leave the Democratic Party and become a Republican, probably giving the GOP a two-thirds majority in the Texas House.

He may not be the last one. Democratic Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg hinted Saturday about making the switch to the GOP.

Ritter would be the 99th Republican in the 150-member House. The seat last held by Republican Edmund Kuempel of Seguin, who died last month, is likely to stay in GOP hands, which means two-thirds of the members of the House would be Republicans. The party would be able to pass a constitutional amendment and take money out of the state’s rainy day fund without any Democratic votes.

Ritter, whose district is in the Beaumont area, did not have a Republican challenger this year. Others who fit his profile — moderate to conservative, white Democrats from rural areas and mid-size towns — got swept away in the November elections, and Ritter could well have lost if the GOP had challenged him.

Functionally, this doesn’t make that much difference. Ritter was no one’s idea of a liberal, so his voting profile won’t change much. The constitutional amendment stuff is basically irrelevant since it also takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to pass a joint resolution, and the Republicans don’t have that. And the Republicans are talking about not using the Rainy Day fund at all, so that doesn’t mean anything, either. Other than Ritter’s re-election chances in 2012, very little has really changed.

Arguably, the Republicans might prefer to downplay all this “supermajority” stuff, since it will reinforce in the public’s mind the fact that they will own everything that happens in the Lege next year. If you don’t even need the other guys to show up to conduct your business, then it’s a little hard to claim they’ve obstructed you if you don’t manage to get everything you want. Maybe they won’t want to do away with the 2/3 rule in the Senate after all – it helps to have a nemesis sometimes.

As for Pena, who knows what he’s going to do. I see it as being more of an attention-grab than anything else, but we’ll see. KT, Harold, Coby, PDiddie, Greg and Greg again, Rachel, and Daniel Lucio have more.

UPDATE: Neil has more as well.

TRCC survives sunsetting

Here’s Blogabear‘s view of HB2295, the bill to sunset the Texas Residential Construction Commission, aka the TRCC. And here’s John Coby‘s view of it. I sure hope the former is closer to the truth, because it passed, though with some decent amendments added. I still think we’d be better off if the damn thing were trashed, but that ain’t happening. Martha on Twitter has the blow-by-blow.

The TRCC should be sunsetted

What EoW says. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s ludicrous to think that a rational profit-maximizing actor such as Bob Perry would spend as much as he does on political access without expecting to get some kind of return on his investment. Seeing him collect the returns on his investment, in a manner that clearly contravenes the public interest, should therefore come as no surprise. John has more.