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SWIFT

What the Harvey needs are from the state

It’s not just about recovery. The long term needs, including mitigation against future events like Harvey, is where the real money will need to be spent.

More than one month after Harvey’s deluge hit, local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, testified at a state House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing that more than $370 million worth of debris removal and repair work on more than 50 government buildings has strained local coffers, necessitating quick aid and reimbursement from the federal or state government.

They also emphasized what likely will greatly exceed the costs of immediate recovery: how to prepare for the next storm. That could include billions of dollars for large-scale buyouts, a third reservoir on Houston’s west side, a reservoir on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County and hundreds of millions of dollars to jump start bayou improvement projects that have slowed in recent years without federal funding.

“There’s going to come a time where we have taken all the money from the feds, we have gotten all the money we’re going to get from the state, and we’re going to have to decide: What kind of community do we want to be?” Emmett said at the hearing.

Harvey’s record-smashing rainfall and floods damaged more than 136,000 homes and other buildings in Harris County and killed nearly 80 people across the state.

The Texas House Appropriations Committee and Urban Affairs Committee met at the University of Houston on Monday to understand public costs and where reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Congressional appropriations were being directed in the storm’s wake.

Emmett, Turner and Fort Bend County officials testified, as did Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, who is coordinating the state’s recovery efforts. The heads of several other state agencies also testified.

The hearing came just three days after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston and presented Turner with a check for $50 million. The check almost immediately was spoken for, Turner said, mostly for debris removal and insurance costs.

Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Houston, said Harvey, in theory, qualified as the “perfect reason” to use the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” a savings account comprised of billions in excess oil and gas taxes.

Abbott had indicated as much last week but said he would tap existing state emergency funds and reimburse them from the Rainy Day Fund when the Legislature next meets in 2019.

“Before the Legislature acts, we need to ensure what the expenses are that the state is responsible for,” Zerwas said.

Yes, that would be nice to know. There were other hearings this week as well.

The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.

The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven’t yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects, then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.

Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created,” Emmett said. “But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”

Emmett said Harris County’s plan likely will include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.

Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)

Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects similar to one the state’s voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.

So far all of the talk is constructive, and even Dan Patrick is doing his part. The real test will be whether we follow up on any of this when the Lege reconvenes. Also, while this doesn’t directly answer my question about the SWIFT fund, but it does clearly suggest that it’s not intended for this kind of infrastructure. Which makes sense, given when it was created, but I had wondered if there was some flexibility built in. I would hope there would be plenty of support for a similar fund for flood mitigation.

Will we spend on some flood mitigation projects?

Maybe. We’ll see.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is calling for the construction of flood control infrastructure in the Houston area — things he said should have been built “decades and decades ago” — including a coastal barrier to protect the region from deadly storm surge.

“We need more levees. We need more reservoirs. We need a coastal barrier,” Patrick said late last week during an interview with Fox News Radio. “These are expensive items and we’re working with [U.S. Sens. John] Cornyn and [Ted] Cruz and our congressional delegation to … get this right. We’ve had three now major floods in three years — nothing at this level but major floods.”

The need is particularly pressing because of the state’s rapid population growth, Patrick added, noting that “a lot of that growth is around the Houston area.” And he said the billions in federal aid that Texas is poised to receive presents an opportunity for Texas “to really rebuild and do things that, quite frankly, should have been done decades and decades ago.”

[…]

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul is seeking $320 million to build another reservoir that would take pressure off Addicks and Barker. That’s exciting, Bettencourt said, because the Austin Republican “can lift more than the average congressman” as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

McCaul’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But last week during a meeting with officials in Katy, he described such a project as “long-term” and said he has discussed funding with Gov. Greg Abbott, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to a Houston Chronicle report.

“We need to look at long-term solutions from an infrastructure standpoint,” he said.

None of it will be covered by the $15 billion short-term relief aid relief package Congress has approved for Texas, and it remains to be seen whether Congress will pay for any flood-control infrastructure projects in Texas.

As the man once said, show me the money. What we have here is state officials talking about getting Congress to spend some money on projects here. There’s no indication of willingness to spend any state funds, which among other things would raise ticklish questions about how to pay for them (*). Maybe this Congress is willing to do that, and maybe it’s not. Let’s just say that the track record is not encouraging.

(*) You may recall that in 2013, voters approved a constitutional amendment to fund a water infrastructure fund that among other things could be used to build reservoirs. The idea of this fund, which came on the heels of the devastating drought of 2011, was to make more water available for cities and industry, but I see no reason why it couldn’t be tapped for something like a flood-mitigation reservoir. I don’t know the specifics of the legislation, and frankly I haven’t heard much about this, the SWIFT fund, since its approval. As such, I may be mistaken in what it can and cannot be used for. But at the very least, it seems like a decent starting point for discussion.

We need to take better care of our water

We lose way too much of it because our infrastructure is old and in need of replacement.

At a time when the Lone Star State is facing a grave water shortage and its population is expected to double by 2060, billions of gallons are hemorrhaging from Texas’ leaky old pipes.

The exact loss is unknown as only 10 percent of the state’s 3,500 utilities were required to report their 2012 losses. But in Houston, enough water seeped from broken pipes to supply 383,000 residents for one year.

According to city records, Houston pipelines gushed 22.4 billion gallons of water in 11,343 leaks last fiscal year. That equates to about 15.2 percent of the city’s total water supply.

No state standard exists on an acceptable loss rate, but some utilities manage to hold their losses to single digits.

Proposition 6, which Texas voters approved last month, could help fund some Houston pipeline improvements since 20 percent of the $2 billion was set aside for statewide conservation efforts. The fund is designed to secure the state water supply for the next 50 years.

“We are still working on establishing the rules for using this money. It should be available by 2015,” said John Sutton, Texas Water Development spokesman.

Mayor Annise Parker’s spokeswoman, Jessica Michan, said the city plans to go after the conservation funds.

Michan said the city already has a separate request in with the TWD for $71 million to rebuild 130 miles of pipe. That request is still pending.

Alvin Wright, Houston’s public works spokesman, said it would take an “astronomical sum”- several billion dollars – to upgrade Houston’s entire system.

Well, water conservation is on Mayor Parker’s third term agenda. I don’t know how much they’ll be able to fund via this mechanism, but perhaps there are some high-value projects that can be done first. This sort of work really needs to be done, and should be prioritized because the fewer the leaks, the less new capacity that will need to be built. There’s plenty of this kind of work to be done across the state, and around the country. Ideally, there would be a federal program to provide grant money for all this work, but Republican nihilism plus an obsessive myopia about the deficit means that will never happen. Prop 6 was far from perfect, but it was the best we were going to get. Let’s make the most of it.

Theories abound about why the Dome referendum failed

I have three things to say about this.

We still have the memories

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said the outcome of both county bond propositions, as well as the Katy stadium, is indicative of resistance among conservative voters to big-ticket spending items they believe are not necessary, or, in the case of the Dome, that could be paid for with private instead of public dollars.

Rottinghaus noted that dozens of redevelopment proposals from private companies have been floated for the Dome since the Astros moved out after the 1999 season. None of them have panned out, but Rottinghaus said county leaders did not adequately address a “burden of proof” to explain why the proposed “New Dome Experience” project had to be paid for with public money.

“These are fairly large numbers, and I think people look at that amount of money and are worried about the rising tax burden of their house,” he said.

[…]

Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, who conducted the pre-election poll, said the outcome of both county bonds proposals came down largely to lax, or disparate, campaigning by county leaders, not an unwillingness to spend.

“I just don’t think there was any significant effort to explain to people why they were doing this,” Stein said. “They just wanted the voters have a chance to say yes or no, which they clearly did.”

[…]

University of St. Thomas political scientist Jon Taylor pointed out that historic preservation groups, who drove a rented truck dubbed the “Dome Mobile” around Houston in the two weeks leading up to the election, actually campaigned fairly hard for the bond.

Considering there was no organized opposition, though, Taylor attributed the outcome to a “quiet conservative backlash,” with many voters “quietly without telling anybody saying ‘No, we are not going to accept this.’ And they didn’t.”

He and Rottinghaus also said they think that all the bonds approved last year could have led to “bond fatigue” for some voters.

“The voters may be wary of going back to what they consider a dry well,” Rottinghaus wrote. “Combine that with a growing sense that government should handle their fiscal matters more responsibly,” and you get “limited support for the Dome and the joint processing center.”

1. I doubt at this point that any of these professors have seen precinct data from this election yet. I know I haven’t. In the absence of such objective data, people will be influenced by their own opinions in explaining a vote like this. I personally lean closer to Prof. Stein’s explanation – all due respect, but driving a billboard around town doesn’t meet my definition of “campaigning hard”; to the best of my recollection, I got no mail, received no phone calls, or saw any ads relating to the Dome referendum. My personal opinion, as I have mentioned before, is that I think many people had become cynical about the whole thing. I think they didn’t trust the County after so many years of inaction and false starts, and I think they weren’t impressed by the New Dome plan. I do agree that many people were not willing to have their property taxes raised to renovate the Dome, but I think this was more about priorities than a general anti-spending mood. I base my opinions on anecdotes and hearsay, mostly resulting from talking to a few people on Tuesday night and from reading the arguments over the Dome at places like the Swamplot comments. I freely admit these are my own entirely non-scientific impressions, and I make no claim about their objective veracity.

2. To add on to Prof. Stein’s point about the city bonds from last year, I will note that Prop 6, the statewide referendum to create a $2 billion water infrastructure fund, received over 75% of the vote in Harris County (see page 2 here). That’s not quite the same as a bond, but that did have organized opposition who clearly cast it as a spending issue, yet that had little to no effect here, or overall. That said, the electorate for the city bonds in 2012 would be much more Democratic than the county voters this year, so the comparison to last year’s vote needs to be kept in perspective.

3. “Bond fatigue”, like “ballot fatigue”, strikes me as a lazy and meaningless expression that poli sci profs sometimes reach for when some pesky reporter is pressing them to explain something for which there is at best insufficient data. Let us please agree to drop these expressions from the vernacular.

Election results: Texas

Short and sweet: All nine constitutional amendments passed, all by substantial margins. Here’s The Observer on Prop 6.

The Texas Water Development Board will now oversee a $2 billion water bank, seeded with capital from the Rainy Day Fund, to help pay for water supply projects and water conservation across the state. The large margin of victory is testimony to the growing public awareness of the state’s serious water problems. (And so much for those silly predictions that “the rain” would dampen enthusiasm at the polls.)

Boosters, including many of the industrial interests that have the most to lose from water scarcity, did a good job positioning Prop 6 as the solution. The message was basically, “Want to do something about our water problems? Here’s the solution. Got a better idea?”

I did notice that a few rural East Texas counties posted large margins against Prop 6. Of course, that’s where the water is and the people aren’t. It’s not unreasonable for East Texans to worry that a multi-billion-dollar water bank will fund projects to move water from east to west. Indeed, they need only look at Dallas’ official plans. In Red River County, where the long-contested Marvin Nichols Reservoir is proposed, the vote on Prop 6 was 57 percent opposed to 43 percent in favor.

Gov. Rick Perry hailed Prop 6’s passage. “Today, the people of Texas made history, ensuring we’ll have the water we need to grow and thrive for the next five decades, without raising state taxes.”

Most large environmental groups supported Prop 6, in large part because of a target that at least 20 percent of the funding from the state water bank will go toward conservation and water reuse projects. Ken Kramer, the former director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, was instrumental in lining up the conservation earmark and was one of the most persuasive voices in favor of Prop 6. He celebrated the victory tonight but sounded a note of caution too.

“Now the real work begins,” Kramer said in a statement. “Texans need to become actively involved in regional water planning and in local government water supply decisions to make sure that the potential for Prop 6 to advance water conservation and enhance water planning is achieved.”

That more or less sums it up for me. See here for more about the other amendments, if you’ve already forgotten what they are.

The only other result of interest is the special election in HD50 to fill out the remainder of former Rep. Mark Strama’s term.

Republican Mike VanDeWalle and Democrat Celia Israel advanced to a runoff Tuesday in the race to replace state Rep. Mark Strama in the Texas House.

Incomplete returns showed VanDeWalle with nearly 39 percent to Democrat Celia Israel’s 32 percent. Democrats Jade Chang Sheppard and Rico Reyes were far behind in the Democrat-leaning district that covers parts of North Austin and eastern Travis County.

Celia Israel is backed by the Victory Fund and would join Rep. Mary Gonzalez as the second LGBT member of the Legislature if she wins. Of course, even if she survives the runoff she would still have to win a Democratic primary in March and then the 2014 general election. Regardless, I’ll be rooting for her in December.

There are no new ideas, but there are plenty of bad ideas

There’s so much wrong with what Greg Abbott wants for Texas that it’s hard to know where to begin.

BagOfMoney

In his first major policy address as a gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Greg Abbott proposed tighter constitutional limits on state spending and increased constraints on the multibillion-dollar Rainy Day Fund.

Abbott laid out his “Working Texans” plan, which is based on fiscal reform to reduce the scope of government, during a campaign stop Monday in Brownsville.

Abbott said that if he were elected governor, he would propose two constitutional amendments to keep state spending tied to population growth and inflation and to safeguard the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account, from “being raided” by the Legislature.

Additionally, Abbott said the governor should be given “expanded line-item veto authority” to reduce excessive spending. He will face former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken in the 2014 Republican primary.

“I am willing to take on the task of making difficult decisions to reduce government spending when at times the Legislature may not be able to do so,” Abbott said, according to prepared remarks, adding that the state has seen “a troubling trend” of using the Rainy Day Fund to cover “what should be core government operations and expenses. “

Instead, Abbott wants to limit the excessive spending of the fund by only allowing it to be used to meet unforeseen revenue shortfalls, to reduce existing debt, to pay for state disaster relief and to address one-time infrastructure payments.

[…]

In his proposal, Abbott also emphasized the importance of finding a permanent source for additional transportation infrastructure, including a proposal to constitutionally divert a portion of the motor vehicle sales tax to road construction and maintenance.

“We need to stop diverting transportation funding away from building roads,” Abbott said. “Money raised for roads should be spent on roads.”

Texas Politics has this in bullet point form. Let me open with what Burka has to say:

Abbott’s ideas will have the effect of constricting the state’s economy rather than expanding it. He says next-to-nothing about public education, for example, nor does he address health care; in other words, he ignores the two biggest and costliest areas of state services. The only solace one can take in Abbott’s vision for the future of the state is that it resolves the question of whether he would be better or worse than Rick Perry. Astonishing as it may seem, I think he is worse than Perry.

The question must be asked: Is Abbott’s vision what Texans want for their government — or their families? Is this really a state whose leaders have no interest in improving the lives of its citizens? Is Texas really going the way of Arkansas and other backward states where all that matters is guns?

Well, there’s also hating on gays and “illegal immigrants”, plus suing the federal government, but you get the idea. I guess it hasn’t occurred to Abbott that the reason we’re dipping into the Rainy Day Fund for a water infrastructure bank is because we have a vast unmet need for water infrastructure projects and no other politically acceptable way to pay for them. He’s also probably not noticed the gaping hole in Texas’ transportation funding, and the fierce resistance to any way of paying for some of it. Oh, and there’s also the judgment against the school finance system – the suit is being relitigated, but I don’t expect a substantially different outcome – and the millions of uninsured Texans that he and his cronies try not to acknowledge. Clearly what we need is a rigid and restrictive spending cap, because that will solve all these problems with the magic of the free market, or something like that.

The Observer shows the degree of Abbott’s ignorance on the subject.

The idea of tying spending to inflation and population growth is not a new one. It’s been popular among elements of the right for years. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, uber-activist Michael Quinn Sullivan and even Perry have flogged the proposal for years. But it’s never gone anywhere for two main reasons—one, there is little appetite in the Texas Legislature for tying their own hands; two, it’s a bad idea.

Texas is already a (relatively) low tax, minimal services, small government state. Indeed, as Nate Blakeslee pointed out in a January Texas Monthly profile of Sullivan, state spending as a share of both the state’s gross domestic product and personal income has been trending downward for two decades. For personal income, which is what the Comptroller uses to set a spending limit, the share of spending has decreased from around 5.2 percent in the early ’90s to just over 4 percent today. Even using the population-plus-inflation spending limit, Texas’ budget has stayed under that limit for the last decade, according to an analysis by the Legislative Budget Board.

In other words, there’s just not a spending problem in Texas. Which is not the same thing as saying there’s an inequity problem when it comes to how revenues are collected (not having a state income tax, for example, means the poor and middle class take it on the nose with regressive sales and property taxes).

Still, tying the state’s budget to inflation and population growth could further constrain state government. You could pretty much forget about ever investing more in public schools, higher education or infrastructure, at least during non-flush times.

In April, the Legislative Budget Board crunched the numbers. The growth in personal income used to set the spending cap for 2014-2015 was 10.71 percent. In other words, the state could spend almost 11 percent more than it had the previous biennium. Using population growth plus inflation instead would limit spending growth to 6.82 percent. That would mean $2.7 billion less for state leaders to work with. That’s not a huge number given that the 2014-2015 state budget includes $95 billion in general revenue. But lowering the spending limit now would have a compounding effect over time.

That’s probably the point—force future generations to subscribe to the current model of low-ish taxes and minimal services. Abbott more or less admitted as much during a press confab after his Brownsville speech.

“By imposing these standards by constitutional provision it means that for generations there will be limits in the growth of spending in this state,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

However, the Legislature has shown little appetite for any of the proposals Abbott is touting. A bill tying the spending limit to population-plus-inflation is filed every session… and goes nowhere.

The Lone Star Project points out that much of what Abbott is proposing is constitutionally redundant as well. The good news is that by going the constitutional amendment route, Abbott starts from a position of not having enough votes for his ideas, and being unlikely to get any more support for them. But the best way to prevent bad ideas from gaining a foothold is to beat them back at the ballot box.

Mostly looking good for Prop 6

A good poll result for the water infrastructure Constitutional amendment.

Texans support $2 billion in water infrastructure financing by a better than 2-to-1 margin, but nearly a quarter haven’t decided how they will vote on the issue this November, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

The respondents favored the measure, known as Proposition 6, 52 percent to 19 percent. A quarter said they had not decided how they would vote.

Political leaders including Gov. Rick Perry have been urging voters across the state to pass the proposition, saying the state’s future depends on it. They have some work to do: Asked how much they have heard about the constitutional amendments on the November ballot, nearly one-half of the respondents said they had heard either “not very much” or “nothing at all.” Only 9 percent said they had heard “a lot” about the amendments.

“To me, there was not a big surprise here,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Policy Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “People reflexively support water funding. People are aware of the drought, we just got out of a hot summer. … There was a decent amount of public discourse.”

The poll found Texans put a high priority on public education, water, and roads and highways. Asked to rank those things, 73 percent said they consider addressing public education needs to be very important, 65 percent said the same about water, and 55 percent gave that highest importance to roads and highways.

And the respondents agree with the Legislature about who ought to be deciding the water issue: 75 percent said “it’s best to let the voters decide” big issues, while 16 percent said “we vote legislators into office to make big decisions.”

The crosstabs are here and the poll summary is here. As pollster Henson explained in a subsequent post, the trick to these low-turnout affairs is to guess who really is a “likely” voter. (See also: Polling in Houston Mayoral races.) The good news for the pro-Prop 6 forces is that they span the political spectrum and have a lot more money than the opponents. They also have better organization and frankly, a better argument than the naysayers.

Until now, there has been little opposition to the measure, and even those leading the fight describe the coalition as “informal.” It includes libertarians, property rights activists, tea party supporters and rural residents worried about losing access to water.

[…]

In Houston, Kathie Glass, a Libertarian candidate for governor, said she is opposed to the proposition because it would encourage more borrowing by local entities already buried in debt. “All this would add to our debt in an unknown and open-ended amount,” she said.

Policy experts said building reservoirs and other big-ticket projects to meet future demand that does not materialize will put the credit ratings of public water systems at risk and significantly increase tax and water bills for customers. At the same time, the fund, as designed, would allow municipalities seeking to build projects to raise money faster and less expensively than through usual channels.

“The state isn’t going into debt on this,” said Ronald Kaiser, a professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. “It’s using its savings so that local communities can invest in themselves.”

Color me shocked that it’s these folks making factually dubious claims. I understand why some environmental groups aren’t thrilled by Prop 6, but this strikes me as one of those times to be careful about the alliances of convenience one forms. All in all, I’d much rather be in the Prop 6 supporters’ position, and since I do support Prop 6, that’s fine by me.

Meet your Constitutional amendments

The Trib runs down the nine proposed constitutional amendments that will be on the ballot this November.

First on the ballot will be HJR 62, by state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, which would authorize the Legislature to provide a property tax exemption for the spouses of veterans. This amendment specifically authorizes a tax exemption for all or part of the market value of the residences of spouses of military members who are killed in action.

Second will be HJR 79, by state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, which would eliminate a requirement for a State Medical Education Board and a State Medical Education Fund. Neither is in operation, with the State Medical Education Board having been defunct for more than a quarter-century.

HJR 133, by state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, will appear third on the ballot. The amendment would extend the tax exemption period on storing aircraft parts in the state and would provide more tax relief to aerospace manufacturers, which often hold such parts in inventory for an extended period of time.

HJR 24, by state Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, will follow and authorize the Legislature to give a partial property tax exemption on charity-donated residences to disabled veterans or their surviving spouses. The amendment would strike the current requirement that qualifying residents be “100 percent” disabled.

SJR 18, by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, will appear fifth on the ballot and would allow homeowners age 62 or older to use reverse mortgages to purchase residences. The current law only expressly allows traditional mortgages, which lets such homeowners borrow against the equity of their homes. The amendment would allow the prospective borrower to use a Federal Housing Administration-insured home equity conversion mortgage to help buy a new home.

Next will be SJR 1, also known as the Rainy Day Fund Amendment. The amendment would create two funds to help finance key projects in the state water plan by pulling about $2 billion from the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund. Authored by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, the amendment has been opposed by conservatives who have argued that pulling money from the Rainy Day Fund would endanger Texas’ economic health.

HJR 87, by state Rep. Sergio Munoz, Jr., D-Palmview, will appear seventh on the ballot. It would authorize home-rule municipalities to choose how to fill city council vacancies if the positions have less than 12 months remaining in a three- or four-year term. The amendment would remove the requirement to hold a mandatory special election for those positions.

HJR 147, by state Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, will come next on the ballot. It would repeal a constitutional provision authorizing the creation of a hospital district in Hidalgo County.

Last on the ballot will be SJR 42, by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. It would authorize the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to use additional disciplinary actions — including public admonition, warning, reprimand, or required additional training or education — against judges or justices after a hearing. The current law allows the SCJC to issue a public censure or recommend a judge’s removal or retirement.

SJR1 is the water infrastructure fund. The road building fund item that finally passed in Special Session 3 won’t grace the ballot until 2014 by agreement, so as not to have two referenda that tap the Rainy Day Fund on the same ballot. The rest of them, I gotta say, I know little to nothing about. Most of them are probably no big deal, and most of them will likely have little to no campaigning done for or against them, so we’ll have to see what the usual suspects have to say about them going forward. If you have an opinion about any of them, please speak up in the comments. Stace has more.

Opposition gearing up for the water fund amendment

The legislation to create a state water infrastructure fund, and the joint resolution that authorized tapping the Rainy Day Fund for up to $2 billion to seed it, had a rocky road in the legislature and wasn’t completed until the last weekend of the regular session. Now the task is to pass the constitutional amendment that the joint resolution enabled on the ballot, and that’s no sure thing, either.

If ratified in the Nov. 5 election, the proposed constitutional amendment would create a state water development bank that supporters say is vital to help Texas avert a worsening water shortage over the next half-century.

The unfolding campaign appears almost certain to match the contours of the legislative debate, balancing the need to keep Texas economically vibrant with a robust water supply against Tea Party-fueled opposition over spending rainy-day money on the multibillion-dollar program.

Nine other amendments are heading to the state’s 13 million-plus voters, but Senate Joint Resolution 1 is easily the farthest-reaching. Senate Natural Resources Chairman Troy Fraser, a chief proponent, said he hopes to muster “an army of people” into the campaign to push the measure to victory.

The effort is expected to include much of the state’s political leadership, including Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

H204Texas, a coalition that includes chambers of commerce, energy companies, water suppliers and other interests, has already started mapping out a political-style campaign that includes fundraising, media buys, op-ed pieces and elaborate use of social media.

“We’re already in full force,” said Heather Harward, the coalition’s executive director.

[…]

But opposition is also taking shape as an array of conservative groups — including Tea Party and citizens lobby organizations — work their formidable email networks to point up what they say are a number of reasons why the initiative should be defeated.

Recycling a major element from the legislative debate, opponents have begun to denounce the proposed use of $2 billion in state rainy-day funds, which lawmakers approved in a separate appropriations bill to capitalize the proposed bank.

Opponents say that putting the $2 billion into a constitutionally dedicated fund enables supporters to avoid having the money count against a state spending cap, which conservatives both in and out of the Legislature have vowed to protect vigorously.

“We’re going to have to oppose it,” said JoAnn Fleming of Tyler, executive director of Grassroots America, which she said networks with more than 300 Tea Party and liberty organizations.

Fleming said members of her organization and related groups plan to work through summer and fall in a “good old-fashioned grassroots effort” to drum up votes against the initiative. “We’ve been successful with that in the past,” she said.

One influential conservative group, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, came out against the proposal during the just-ended regular legislative session, but group President Michael Quinn Sullivan said in an email that “it’s premature to speculate on what we may or may not be doing in the fall on constitutional amendments.”

“A great many conservative groups opposed SJR1 in the legislature,” said Sullivan, who is president of Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. “We know a lot of folks are going to be talking about it in the fall. If or when we decide to engage in that issue, we’ll engage.”

Chuck Molyneaux of McKinney, 73, a retired software developer who heads the North Texas Citizens Lobby, said his organization is reaching out to its allies in the Tea Party community to oppose the measure and the proposed use of rainy-day funds.

“We’re going to do our best to keep it from being passed,” he said. “This one just reeks of smoke and mirrors.”

I’ll save the debate about the merits of the amendment for another day. I just want to point out that historically speaking, the vast majority of amendments that get put on the ballot do get passed. However, three of the five that were defeated in the past decade went down in 2011. Here’s a brief recap of how this voting has gone:

2011 – 7/10 passed
2009 – 11/11 passed
2007 – 16/16 passed
2005 – 7/9 passed
2003 – 22/22 passed

There are two interesting things about the 2011 election. One is that the referenda that failed were not exactly high profile or had any apparent opposition going into the election. Here’s the ballot statement of the five amendments in 2011 and 2005 that were rejected, first from 2011:

Prop 4 Permit county to issue bonds for development, 40.26 to 59.73
Prop 7 Permit El Paso County to create reclamation districts, 48.29 to 51.50
Prop 8 Appraisal for ad valorem tax of land devoted to water stewardship, 47.00 to 52.99

And from 2005:

Prop. 5 Commercial loan interest rates defined by Legislature, 43.41 to 56.48
Prop. 9 Six-Year term for regional mobility authority, 46.67 to 53.32

Unlike 2005, the year of the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage amendment, there wasn’t anything particularly high profile in 2011, though Prop 4 was opposed by various anti-toll road groups. I have no memory of the defeated issues from 2005. The other thing about the 2011 election was that it had the lowest turnout of any referendum on this list:

2011 Turnout – 690,052
2009 Turnout – 1,058,986
2007 Turnout – 1,096,410
2005 Turnout – 2,260,695
2003 Turnout – 1,470,443

That might have had something to do with it, though recall that the 2003 election, which included the medical malpractice tort “reform” referendum was held in September (back when there was still a uniform election date in September) for the deliberate purpose of keeping turnout low, which supporters of tort “reform” assumed would be better for their cause. They didn’t want to be on the same ballot as the high-turnout Houston Mayoral election that year. It’s not clear to me whether turnout will be a factor one way or the other for SJR1, but on the whole the lower the turnout the greater the influence of the more motivated voters, and I’d put my money on the antis being more motivated at this time. So keep an eye on that. EoW has more.

We appear to have a budget

Took them long enough.

BagOfMoney

After days of jockeying and one-upsmanship, the Texas House and Senate each approved measures Wednesday evening critical to passing their next two-year budget.

“The results of these two bills together is a good conservative budget, and it’s something we can all be proud of,” said Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

With just five days left in the legislative session, both chambers needed to at least tentatively pass separate measures by midnight as part of a larger budget deal agreed to by leaders from both chambers last week.

The Senate voted 29-3 for House Bill 1025. Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; Ken Paxton, R-McKinney; and Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, voted against the measure.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 passed the House 130-16, meaning it crossed the 100-vote threshold to avoid coming up for a second vote on Thursday.

The measure approved by the House would ask Texas voters to amend the state Constitution to create a new fund for water infrastructure projects. The Senate passed a $5.4 billion supplemental budget bill that would, among other things, put $2 billion in that new fund.

The negotiations over how exactly to approve the two measures exposed deep tensions between the House and Senate as lawmakers on both sides pushed for the other chamber to move first out of concerns that the other side might not keep its word.

I didn’t follow the ins and outs of this little soap opera because it was low comedy even by legislative standards, and in the end either it was going to get done or it wasn’t. Rick Perry could still blow it all up if he wants to, but that has always been the case. The bill to provide “relief” from the margins tax was substantially altered in the Senate and is in conference committee, and it’s not clear that either that or whatever crumbs have been thrown to TxDOT will meet Perry’s goals for avoiding a special session, at least for something other than redistricting. But at least the Lege hasn’t deliberately sabotaged things. Take your victories where you can. The Observer, Burka, and EoW have more.

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.

Senate officially taps the Rainy Day Fund

Well done.

BagOfMoney

Texas senators hammered out a sweeping deal to increase state funding for water and transportation projects and schools on Tuesday, tackling some of the thorniest issues of the legislative session all at once.

The senators voted 31-0 for Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would ask Texas voters to approve taking $5.7 billion out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Of that amount, $2.9 billion would go to transportation, $2 billion to water infrastructure projects and $800 million to public education.

“I woke up at 2:30 this morning worried about how I was going to get this bill out of the ditch,” Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands and the bill’s author, said. “It’s a miracle.”

Senators also annonunced plans to allocate an extra $1.4 billion for schools that came about after the Comptroller’s office informed the senators that property valuations have come in higher than previously estimated. Put together, the Senate’s actions would restore $3.7 billion of the $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made in 2011, Williams said.

[…]

The measure passed Tuesday is significantly different than what Williams originally proposed. His original plan had no money for education. The $800 million in the package approved Tuesday includes $500 million in formula funding and $300 million in merit pay for teachers.

On transportation, Williams had wanted to spend $3.5 billion on a State Infrastructure Fund that would either loan out money to local communities for road projects or help them borrow money more cheaply to fund the projects. Williams said late Tuesday that a majority of Senators made clear to him they were not interested in a plan that increased public borrowing.

The measure approved Tuesday will put $2.9 billion directly into the state highway fund, which the Texas Department of Transportation will use instead of issuing that much in bond debt. That will save the agency about $6 billion over the next 30 years in avoided debt service costs, Williams said.

All things considered, not too bad. I prefer this way of using the RDF for transportation, and if the Senate water plan emphasized conservation in the same way as the House plan, it’s all to the good. There will still be plenty of money left in the RDF after these expenditures, and the way the energy business is going these days, it’ll fill back up soon enough. Comptroller Susan Combs has endorsed the idea. The best part of all this is that as a joint resolution, it doesn’t need Rick Perry’s signature, just 100 votes in the House. Of course, that could be a heavy lift, but if the likes of Patrick, Birdwell, Campbell, Paxton, et al can vote for this, there’s no reason why the House teabaggers can’t as well. A statement from Sen. Jose Rodriguez on the passage of SJR1 is here, and the Observer has more.

Senate to tap that Rainy Day Fund

It is just sitting there, not doing any good if it’s unused.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, laid out an ambitious plan to spend $6 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund on Thursday morning while also setting the stage for a serious debate in the remaining weeks of the session on whether to tap the fund for public education.

Williams’ proposal, called Senate Joint Resolution 1, would ask Texas voters to approve spending $3.5 billion on transportation projects and $2.5 billion on water projects. The comptroller’s office has projected the fund, fed largely by taxes on the state’s oil and gas production, will grow to $11.8 billion by the end of the next biennium.

The Senate Finance Committee unanimously voted the resolution out of the committee to be considered by the full Senate.

Williams said he was willing to consider amendments to the resolution that would put money toward public education. Since last year, Democrats in both the House and Senate have suggested tapping the fund to help restore some of the cuts made to schools in 2011. Most Republicans in the Legislature have dismissed the proposal as a nonstarter, explaining that the fund should not be used for recurring expenses such as school spending.

“I’m willing to consider a thoughtful amendment that would address some of our public education concerns,” Williams said. He also didn’t rule out considering amendments related to spending from the fund on health-related state expenses.

[…]

Williams’ proposal as drafted would create two new state funds: the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas, also known as SWIFT, and the State Infrastructure Fund. The former would be used to fund projects in the statewide water plan, which lists $53 billion in water-supply projects including reservoirs, wells, pipelines and desalination facilities.

The Senate Finance Committee was unanimously supportive of the part of the plan spending money on water projects. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, described it as “visionary.”

The portion of the plan going to transportation was less well-received, as some senators worried the plan wouldn’t do enough to address a projected funding shortfall at the Texas Department of Transportation and would increase public debt. Under Williams’ proposal, TxDOT would largely make use of the State Infrastructure Fund to help local communities move forward with road, port and freight rail projects by either loaning out money for the projects or helping public entities borrow money for the projects at lower interest rates.

Williams, a former Senate Transportation Committee chairman, made it clear that he did not believe his plan was enough to address the state’s transportation issues. TxDOT has said it needs $4 billion in new revenue each year just to keep traffic levels around the state from getting worse.

“I don’t believe this is the silver bullet that’s going to solve our transportation problems, but I believe it’s part of a solution that must include robust new funding for road construction,” Williams said.

The House has already passed a bill to use Rainy Day funds for SWIFT. I feel about the same way as described above – it’s a decent idea for water projects, less so for transportation projects, since it will mostly push the cost of those projects to local government, which will mean a lot more toll roads, not all of which will be successful. As for the debate about using some funds to make school districts whole (or at least whole-r), all I can say is that I wish everyone had been this enthusiastic about the Rainy Day Fund two years ago when we really needed it. Of course, at the time the Lege was likely counting on the Rainy Day Fund to cover the planned shortfalls they built in for Medicaid and the delayed payments to school districts. Turns out they didn’t need to be so tight, and they can thank Rick Perry and his lines in the sand for enabling them to avoid public discussions of why they weren’t planning to use the RDF to help schools. The Texas AFT is unimpressed.

The debate about using Rainy Day funds for schools when SJR1 hits the floor promises to be a lively one.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he wants to add $2.4 billion to the package to fully restore $5.4 billion in education cuts made two years ago.

“I think there’s information that I’d like to share with all the members of the committee and take a look at what really happened,” Williams responded, “because when we consider on an all-funds basis, there weren’t $5.4 billion in cuts.

“There were cuts and I wish that we hadn’t had to make any of those cuts,” he added. “But I think it was more on the order of $800 million when we look at the total impact on school districts.” Williams added that, as a result of a proposed state budget, school districts are now “up by about $4.5 billion from where they were.”

Williams’ assessment brought a fiery reaction from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who has made restoration of education cuts one of her top priorities.

“It’s absurd,” she said following the committee meeting. “I’ts the same fuzzy math that the Republican leadership used we we finished the (2011) session claiming to have added money in public education when school districts all over Texas were laying teachers off and enlarging classroom sizes.

Davis said that cuts to education have totaled $8.3 billion since 2009.

Nothing like a dispute about the basic facts to keep things fresh. I’ll be greatly disappointed if at least some of the livestream video doesn’t get put on YouTube afterwards.

One more thing:

Williams’ resolution explicitly states that none of the State Infrastructure Fund’s spending can go toward passenger rail projects, which Williams described as “a black hole for money.”

“One passenger rail project would burn up the money in this fund,” Williams said. “I just don’t think it’s a wise use of state resources.”

I think that’s needlessly restrictive, but whatever. If the folks pushing that high speed rail network do a good job of it, I suspect there will be state money available to them if they ask nicely.

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.