Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Lawmakers Approve Funding For Texas Water Plan, Setting Up Statewide Vote

Photo courtesy of Photomonkey via Flickr's creative commons http://bit.ly/10MHsQP

The House and Senate both advanced measures to fund the State Water Plan, but many hurdles remain.

After days of postponement, arm twisting and behind the scenes negotiation, measures to advance funding for Texas’ State Water Plan were approved in the State Legislature Wednesday.

Lawmakers have been talking about taking money from state’s rainy day fund to improve water infrastructure since at least 2011, when a historic drought gripped the state. Today, members of the House and Senate found the votes to keep that plan alive.

The House voted 130-16 to call for a constitutional amendment to create two accounts from which to loan money for water projects. The Senate passed a supplementary budget bill that would put around $2 billion dollars in that water bank from the state’s rainy day fund with a vote of 29-3.

Because of complicated deal making between the State House and Senate and between Democrats and Republicans, the vote on the constitutional amendment was postponed past a House deadline yesterday while lawmakers waited to make sure the supplementary budget in the Senate contained what they wanted.

Neither chamber would jump first. Wednesday, they held hands and jumped together.

The votes bring lawmakers closer to the goal of funding the state water plan, and may have avoided a special session to address water issues. But hurdles remain. The House and Senate still need to finalize the budget. Then, there’s the matter of a statewide vote to amend the constitution.

Photo by Mose Buchele

State Reps Allan Ritter, with arms crossed, and Jim Pitts, at podium, argue for SJR1.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 calls for the constitutional amendment to create the two water fund accounts: the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas (SWIFT) and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund of Texas (SWIRFT). The creation of those accounts rests on a statewide vote in November. Without voter approval, the accounts will not exist.

The accounts would be used to give out low-interest loans for regional water projects in Texas. The projects would be chosen by the Texas Water Development Board, which would also manage the accounts. That board was overhauled by a different piece of legislation, HB4, that passed out of the legislature earlier this session.

State Rep. Allan Ritter, who authored HB4, told StateImpact Texas that the system needs two different accounts “so that the constitution and the enabling legislation, HB 4, match.”

“The SWIFT is related more to general obligation bonds the SWIRFT is related more to revenue bond programs,” Ritter said.

The loans would generate revenue that would go back into the accounts to be loaned out again. The plan is that the $2 billion initially put into the accounts could end up funding $25 billion dollars worth of projects over the next 50 years.

Come November, Texas voters might see some campaigning around those accounts.

Debate Continues?

A vocal faction of lawmakers oppose plan, along with Tea Party groups and others who seek to limit government. They may be able to mobilize activists to vote against the constitutional amendment in November.

State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), who opposed SJR 1, said he thinks there will be a public debate about the amendments before November, though he wasn’t sure “how big it will be.”

“I think we should stick to our priorities and just restrain government to its proper limited role,” he said after the vote.

If the constitutional amendments are somehow defeated, it would mean the money stays in the rainy day fund, Rep. Ritter told StateImpact Texas.

“If (the voters) don’t want us to take two billion dollars out of the rainy day fund to fund this, then there wont be the financing to do the state water plan,” Ritter said.

But with business groups, agricultural groups, conservationists and others supporting the plan, opponents will face an uphill battle.

“It’s a big day for Texas,” Ritter said. “We’re a lot closer [to funding the water plan] than we were three months ago.”


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