Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Meet the Unlikely Allies Behind the Push for Prop 6, Texas’ Water Fund

As several interest groups push for billions of dollars to finance water projects, the opposition is warning it could be another opportunity for cronyism.

Photo Illustration by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As several interest groups push for billions of dollars to finance water projects, the opposition is warning it could be another opportunity for cronyism.

Strange Bedfellows Found in Opposition As Well

Update: Prop 6 passed. Read the full story here.

How do you get Koch Industries, Chevron and Environment Texas all donating to the same political action committee (PAC)? That’s what’s happening here in Texas, with a diverse group pushing support for Proposition 6, a constitutional amendment that would use billions of dollars to jump-start financing for water projects in Texas.

To get Prop 6 passed, a PAC led by Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus raised over $2 million to promote it, according to financial records¬†analyzed¬†by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. They found nearly a million dollars in contributions from the energy industry to the PAC (i.e. the state’s powerful oil and gas sector), nearly half a million from the construction industry (which stands to benefit from the potential projects funded through the plan), and a small donation ($500) from Environment Texas. There has also been vocal support from other environmental groups, like the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy.

Not surprisingly, many of the big donors to the Texas Water PAC are also big contributors to Texas Governor Rick Perry, Texans for Public Justice points out.

Strange bedfellows form the opposition to the idea as well, with its own unusual mix of smaller environmental groups and libertarians.

One critique from those against the bill is that the water fund could become another example of cronyism and misuse of state funds. The three new full-time board members of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), all appointed by Perry, are all tied to the governor: Bech Bruun, his former appointments director; Carlos Rubenstein, who he formerly appointed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; and Mary Ann Williamson, his former appointee to the Texas Lottery Commission, and an owner of a natural gas drilling company that Perry has invested in through his blind trust. (You can read more on their ties to Perry in¬†this¬†Texas Observer¬†piece, ‘Prop 6: Slush Fund or Solution to Texas‚Äô Water Woes?‘)

It was only this week that another voter-approved, billion-dollar fund, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, had a moratorium on grants lifted after an audit found tens of millions of dollars in grants had been given away without sufficient oversight. Other state funds have faced similar issues over cronyism and favoritism, like the Emerging Technology Fund and the Enterprise Fund.

“For any project to receive funds, it has to be in the State Water Plan,” TWDB board member Bech Bruun tells StateImpact Texas. That means it has already been vetted and approved at the regional and local level, Bruun says.

After a project gets to the Water Development Board and is¬†prioritized¬†and ultimately approved, it will then go to a¬†separate¬†legislative¬†advisory committee that will oversee final approval of projects. That committee is made up of several members, including three appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and three appointed by the Speaker. It also includes the State Comptroller (or their designated representative) as well. “So there will be an active committee overseeing the process and the implementation and use of the fund,” Bruun tells StateImpact Texas.

“Rick Perry is the consummate crony capitalist,” Texans for Public Justice write in their Lobby Watch analysis of the Texas Water PAC, citing issues with those other state-managed special funds. “Notably absent are checks and balances to stop this from becoming the next political slush fund of a governor who would be president.”

While the overall funding could be approved next week at the polls, there are still a few years of figuring out which projects will receive loans. Regional planning groups will have until next fall to submit their final prioritized project lists requesting funding; the board will have until March 2015 to finalize approval of projects in the 2011 water plan.

Early voting ends tomorrow; and a full day of voting will commence Tuesday, November 5.


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