It was possibly the most high profile piece of legislation at the capital this session. It had the backing of the governor, the state’s business community, and many environmental groups. But last night House Bill 11, the plan to pull $2 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to put to Texas water projects, could not muster the votes to gain approval in the Texas House of Representatives.
Backers of the bill felt pressure from all sides ahead of the vote. Tea Party budget cutters called it an example of irresponsible spending and pointed out that the bill would likely break state imposed spending limits. House Democrats made their support contingent on tapping the rainy day fund for education as well.
To navigate the impasse, bill supporters plotted a risky course.
State Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, introduced an amendment calling for the $2 billion to be taken from across-the-board budget cuts if lawmakers couldn’t reach the two-thirds vote needed to tap the Rainy Day Fund. It was a proposal that seemed designed to bring more conservative Republicans on board. But, according to supporters of HB 11, the real hope was that the threat of cuts would make Democrats vote for the original bill, and muster enough votes to unlock the Rainy Day Fund. Things didn’t work out that way.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, accused Creighton of using other state programs, especially education funding, as bargaining chips in an effort to fund the water plan.
“Your amendment says water first. Everything else is second!” Turner railed in one of a handful of dramatic exchanges on the floor. “By definition your amendment has picked a winner and everybody else stands to lose!”
In an effort to battle the possible budget cuts, Democrats piled amendments on top of Creighton’s initial amendment. Those were all defeated by Republican lawmakers. Next, Democrats came up with different points of order aimed at sinking the bill. A handful were called and rejected before one finally stuck.
And as quickly as that, one of the signature pieces of legislation this session was sunk.
The chink in the armor was apparently a technicality about the timing of when an appropriations bill can be brought for a vote.
“They discovered it pretty quickly, and they all discovered it at the same time,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio.
Larson and other backers of HB 11 say they hope the bill will be resurrected in the coming days, brought back through committee and finally for a second vote. But there might not be time for that in the regular session.
“Because of the compressed timeline that we’re in, and obviously we have differing opinions. Very well could push us into a special session this summer if we don’t reconcile that. Its as simple as that,” Larson told StateImpact Texas.
Texas Governor Rick Perry has said he would call a special session if water funding goes unresolved. Another option? House lawmakers could take up a proposal already passed in the Senate. That would put the issue of opening the Rainy Day Fund before all Texas voters as part of a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall.