Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Preventing the Texas Water Plan From Becoming a Boondoggle

Texas lawmakers appear to be ready to start seriously funding water development and conservation in the state. They’re looking at creating a state-run program, with billions of dollars, that would pick projects based on need and efficacy, administered by an oversight board appointed by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House.

But it all sounds awfully similar to another state-run grant program that has come under harsh review for a lack of oversight and accountability: the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute (CPRIT).

When it was voted in as a state constitutional amendment in 2007, CPRIT was planned to have access to $3 billion in state-purchased bonds over a ten-year period to offer grants and low-interest loans to companies researching cancer treatment. Like the proposed water infrastructure bank, it had an oversight committee appointed by the ‘Big Three’ of Texas politics: the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House. But about halfway into its life, it has become a poster child for cronyism and inefficiency. Its research accounts are frozen, and a scathing state audit released last week found that the program needed to “significantly improve” its “transparency and accountability.”

Becca Aaronson of the Texas Tribune lays out what the auditors found:

“State auditors … found business and professional relationships between CPRIT’s management, CPRIT’s commercialization review council and donors who contributed to the CPRIT Foundation. They also found three grants that were approved without proper review — the executive director recommended the applications receive grants, but the peer review council did not — for a total of about $56.3 million.”

As real funding of water bank for the Texas Water Plan (a collection of projects submitted by regional agencies overseen by the Texas Water Development Board) gets under way, the question of oversight has arisen: What’s to prevent the water bank from becoming the next CPRIT?

At a panel on water issues hosted by StateImpact Texas last week, we put that question to several lawmakers that are working to put together a water infrastructure bank.

“I think water is fundamentally different than cancer research,” State Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) told the audience. Hegar pointed out that projects in the Water Plan often involve multiple layers of civic involvement, as opposed to the direct private partnerships that have caused problems at the cancer institute. And the Texas Water Development Board, Hegar said, has already allocated large sums on projects in the past.

“I think if you look back over the course of all those funds, I think we’ve had a default of a total of $156,000 in the last two or three decades. And we’ve had billions and billions of dollars go through the Water Development Board during that time,” he said.

“The difference is the hurdles you have to clear to get funding [as a project]” in the Water Plan, Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) said. Those projects start at the regional level, Larson said, and then have to be approved by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB). “And then you’re competing against other projects across the state,” Larson said. “So we’ve got some checks and balances inherently built in to this system.”

And part of the problem with CPRIT may have been that it was over lawmakers’ heads, said Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo).

“A cancer research project, I can’t very intelligently discuss that with a whole lot of people, because I don’t know much about what they’re trying to research or develop,” he said. “But I promise you, everybody in this state has a pretty good idea about water projects. You’re gonna have a lot of eyes looking at these projects.”

Darby also said that the Legislature could take more time setting up Water Plan funding than they did with CPRIT.

Finally, Hegar posited that perhaps less oversight would help the implementation and funding of the State Water Plan. He proposed foregoing the oversight committee proposed in Rep. Allan Ritter’s bill and leaving it all to the Texas Water Development Board.

Hegar wants to change the leadership of the Water Development Boad from part-time into a full-time commission. Darby and Larson indicated that they agreed with Hegar’s contention that with a full-time Water Development Board, an oversight committee for the water infrastructure bank may not be necessary.

As for the myriad issues at the cancer institute, the lawmakers said they’re going to fix them. “We’re going to solve those problems,” Hegar said. “They shouldn’t have occurred  But we’re going to make sure the right people are there so we don’t have those conflicts of interest.”


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