By Chris Tomlinson
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — In an overwhelming display of bipartisanship, the Texas House voted to create state water fund using money from the Rainy Day Fund to meet the needs of the rapidly growing state.
The State Water Development Board would use what is expected to be a $2 billion fund set up in House Bill 4 to leverage $27 billion over the next 50 years to build new reservoirs, improved pipelines and increase water conservation. The measure passed 146-2, with only two tea party members opposing the measure.
The plan would take the money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund and create the State Water Infrastructure Fund of Texas, intended to leverage bond financing for new reservoirs, pipelines, desalination plants and conservation projects. The water needs to add about 8.3 million acre-feet of supply to meet the forecast population growth in Texas.
Texas needs to spend about $53 billion over the next 50 years to meet the water needs of the growing population, according to the State Water Development Board. About half of that needs to come from the state, with local governments or private businesses providing the rest. The plan would add 9 million acre feet of new water supplies.
Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, says the new fund could leverage $27 billion over the next 50 years. Lawmakers have long debated whether to fund the State Water Plan with a fee on water customers, general revenue from the state treasury or with a one-time investment from the Rainy Day Fund.
“If we were to use general revenue to finance these projects it would cost more than $8 billion,” Ritter explained in defending a measure he’d worked on for six years.
The Sierra Club and Environment Texas, a grassroots group, all welcomed the bill’s passage.
“In every sector of water use, new technologies and better management practices can enable us to get more out of a gallon of water. We can’t control when it rains, but we can control how we use water. State funding can help cut water waste, improve water conservation, and steer Texas toward a more sustainable water future,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas.
The president of the Texas Association of Business, Bill Hammond, said “the action of the House will ensure that Texans will have a stable water supply even when the time between rainy days is long.”
The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and Empower Texans urged lawmakers to oppose the bill or significantly modify the bill. The foundation opposed spending money on conservation and opposed tapping the Rainy Day Fund. Empower Texans also opposed using the Rainy Day Fund and wanted to limit the water funds spending.
Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, put forward an amendment to remove the requirement that 20 percent of the fund go toward water conservation or education projects. Environmental groups had fought hard to include that section in the law.
The State Water Plan calls for 34 percent of future water needs to come from conservation and water re-use projects, but the bill sets aside only 20 percent of the funds for those purposes. Some worry the fund will become a political slush fund used to reward big businesses and political donors
King’s amendment failed on a 104-41 vote. That was just the first volley in repeated conservative attempts to change the bill.
Tea party ally Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, attempted 10 amendments, most of which would have fundamentally changed the bill, including a ban on tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund, limiting what projects the board could fund or impose other impediments.
Ritter opposed all of Taylor’s amendments.
“This is just another attempt to make sure the program doesn’t work,” Ritter said after Taylor’s eighth amendment.
Taylor withdrew four of the proposals when it became clear they wouldn’t pass, while the other four were soundly defeated with less than 20 supporting votes out of 150. Two did not meet parliamentary rules.
Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, during debate over one amendment became exasperated with Taylor offering amendments to a bill he intended to vote against in the end.
Taylor asked just before the final vote whether Ritter would ask for any more money for water projects in the future. Ritter said $2 billion would meet the needs set out in the 2012 State Water Plan, but declined to predict what future Legislatures may do.
Taylor voted against the bill along with Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview.
The Texas Senate is working on a similar measure and the two versions of the bill will need to be reconciled before the measure goes to the governor.