Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Texas House Passes Major Water Bill

Photo Illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A bill to provide major funding for new water projects in Texas was passed by the House today.

The Texas House approved legislation today that would use $2 billion to fund more water projects in the state. HB 4, by Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, would create a water bank that would offer loans for projects like new water reservoirs, pipelines and conservation projects.

“As Mother Nature has reminded us in the last couple of years, we can’t change the weather,” Ritter said at the outset of the hearing, “but with sound science and far-sighted planning, we can conserve and develop supply to meet our future demands.”

The floor hearing was a significant step for the passage of the bill, but despite widespread support at the Capitol, it wasn’t a sure bet. During more than four hours of debate on the bill, it faced sustained opposition from a few lawmakers, some of them affiliated with the Tea Party, whose amendments would’ve effectively gutted the funds. They were ultimately thwarted by other Republicans.

The point man for scuttling the bill was Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano. He filed several amendments promoted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. The amendments would have forced the water funding to come from general revenue, as opposed to the Rainy Day Fund, and count towards the state’s spending cap. Taylor testified that Ritter’s plan wasn’t fiscally responsible and could put the state’s bond rating at risk.

Ritter consistently advocated for tabling Taylor’s amendments, and the House complied. All of Taylor’s amendments were either tabled or withdrawn, yet his proposals took up much of the hearing. At one point, Taylor had an amendment that would exclude metro areas, including his own, from tapping into the funding for new water projects. Taylor ended up withdrawing it.

Taylor indicated he wouldn’t vote for the bill even if his amendments passed. After a while, it provoked the ire of his fellow lawmakers, in particular Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio.

“What you’re doing, I believe is disingenuous, to step up and offer amendments for political reasons,” Larson said, “and to try and gain some kind of favor instead of trying to make the bill better so you could legitimately support it.”

Larson continued, “It’s very unfortunate that we get to the point where someone like yourself, someone very gifted, that has a lot of abilities we could use in a positive way, instead every one in this body knows you’re just going to vote this down.”

“I don’t ultimately agree with what we’re trying to do here,” Taylor replied calmly, “had my first amendment passed, I’d be able to support this bill.” Taylor’s first amendment would have prevented the water bank from using the Rainy Day Fund. That means the money would have to come from general state revenue, which is largely spoken for.

When his final amendment came forward three hours into the hearing, the lawmakers had had enough, and Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, proposed using House procedure to prevent Taylor from presenting his final amendment. Geren succeeded, which got cheers from lawmakers on the floor.

Another battle was fought over conservation. The water funding legislation specifies that certain amounts of the funding go toward conservation projects (20 percent) and rural projects (10 percent).

An amendment by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, attempted a linguistic sleight-of-hand to undermine the conservation requirement. He wanted to change the language to say that the Texas Water Development Board “may” undertake to apply not less than 20 percent to support conservation projects instead of using the world “shall.”

And so a semantic battle began over what the word “undertake” means, and the many interpretations of “may” and “shall.” But at the root, it was about whether or not to prioritize conservation funding. That amendment failed.

An amendment that would have required environmental review of projects failed, as did one that would’ve prevented companies that get contracts from the water bank from making political contributions. The bill left the House floor very similar to how it entered it.

But as the bill finally came to a vote, Taylor had just a few more questions for Ritter on whether or not the bill would be sufficient to meet the state’s growing water demands.

“Once this bill passes, once it’s funded … this is the last time that we’re gonna see you, or…” Taylor asked, before Ritter cut him off.

“Mr. Taylor, I can’t tell you what any other legislature in the future will do,” Ritter said. “I will tell you again, in the four corners of the 2012 Water Plan, this will work.”

“I appreciate your receptiveness,” Taylor said in return. “I think we’ve put together as good a bill as we can.”

Then he offered a joke.

“What did the fish say when it hit the wall?” Taylor asked. “Dam!”

It got few laughs.

The bill passed nearly unanimously, with only two votes against it, from Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, and, as expected, Taylor. Now the bill is headed to the Senate.

There was applause for Ritter as it passed.

Rep. Ritter has been pushing for water funding for several sessions. So how does he feel?

“I’m tired,” Ritter said after the final vote. But “I really feel good.”

Kate Galbraith of Texas Tribune contributed reporting.


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