Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

New Plan Would Put Water and Roads Funding in Voters’ Hands

PA PHOTOS /LANDOV

A new surprise plan from the Texas Senate would take big decisions about funding for water and roads and put them in the hands of voters.

Water and roads are hot topics at the Texas legislature this session, as for the first time in several sessions, lawmakers make real efforts to fund new water and road projects for the growing state. While there seems to be a broad consensus that significant new funding is needed; as expected, it’s in the particulars where differences are emerging.

If a new Senate proposal ultimately passes, the large allocation of state dollars for water and roads would now be decided by the voters.

A plan already making its way through the legislature would create a revolving state water bank, backed by $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund (basically the state’s bonus savings account) and an additional $6 billion in bond authority. That recently passed in the House and is now in the Senate, HB 4. But the actual funds for that bill are found in another bill, HB 11, which has yet to hit the floor. (A similar scenario is at play in the Senate.)

But late yesterday, in a surprise move, State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-Woodlands, introduced a different plan for the funds for the water bank, which would send the spending approval to voters. It’s in Senate Joint Resolution 1, with a price tag of $2.5 billion for water, and another $3.5 billion in transportation funding. Voters would decide on each allocation separately. They quickly held a hearing on it this morning in the Senate Finance Committee. 

One of the issues at play is the state’s spending cap, which says the state budget can only grow by the rate of  increase of personal income. There’s debate at the Capitol whether or not taking money from the Rainy Day Fund counts against that cap. If the legislature busted the cap, it could be a political vulnerability for Republicans seeking re-election. By moving the decision to the voters, in essence, that’s no longer an issue.

It also means that one person in particular would no longer have veto power: Governor Rick Perry.

While Perry hasn’t indicated he would veto such a measure (and called for finding money for water and roads from the Rainy Day Fund in his state of the state speech in January), conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Empower Texans have so far fought efforts to use money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund for the water bank and bust the spending cap.

Those same groups could oppose the new funding plan if it heads to ballot box.

There is also the issue of low voter turnout during off-year elections in Texas. In 2011, turnout was just over five percent. Contrast that with the Presidential election of 2012, with turnout of 59 percent. The highest turnout has been for a constitutional amendment in Texas over the last decade was in 2005, when 18 percent of voters turned up at the ballot box to ban gay marriage in the state.

“You’re always taking your chances when you go to the ballot with a constitutional amendment,” says Ken Kramer, Water Resources Chair & Legislative Advisor, for the Sierra Club, which is generally in favor of the water funding, but wary of more road construction. “They tend to pass but not always.”

After the last legislative session, a proposed amendment that would give property tax breaks to farmers and ranchers for water conservation improvements — which had passed the legislature unanimously – went to the ballot box, where it failed. “No one can figure out why,” Reed says, “because there wasn’t any opposition campaign against it.”

“Logistically and legislatively, there’s no real reason to do the constitutional amendment,” Reed says. “But it creates political problems for many legislators who have to run for office [to solely approve spending]. If they can punt to the voters, then that takes the onus off them.”

There’s buzz at the legislature that part of the reason for taking the spending approval to voters is to get some more money from the Rainy Day Fund allocated to education.

The Senate resolution passed the Finance Committee unanimously this morning. Now it heads to the full Senate.

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