Rainy day dilemma over water funding could lead to special session


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE


Posted on May 2, 2013 at 6:12 PM

Updated Thursday, May 2 at 6:21 PM

AUSTIN -- As water supplies dry up across the state, the signs of Texas' water woes are impossible to miss. 
With the state's savings account known as the "rainy day" fund expected to top nearly $12 billion by 2015, many hoped funding a fix could start there. 
"That's why I support a move to utilize $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund for a one-time investment in infrastructure programs," Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) announced during his State of the State Address in January.
Last week the Texas House approved HB 4, creating the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT). Administered by the Texas Water Development Board, the fund would serve as a water infrastructure bank able to provide low-interest loans and more friendly financing options for water projects across the state. 
On Monday, a bill to transfer $2 billion from the rainy day fund to use as startup money for SWIFT was stalled amid heated debate. With the 100 votes needed for a rainy day fund expenditure looking unlikely, a point of order raised by state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) sent HB 11 back to the House Appropriations Committee without a vote.
Many Democrats argued if the rainy day fund could be tapped for water, it should be used to restore deep cuts to education as well. 
"Many of us who were here two years ago know that public education was cut by $5.4 billion, and we've only restored the cuts maybe at fifty percent of what it was," state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer told KVUE Monday. "It's not about money. We have the money in the rainy day fund. It's about votes. Building a coalition of 100 men and women, Republicans and Democrats to come together and do what's right."
At the same time, a number of Tea Party Republicans voiced concern over spending rainy day fund dollars in general. State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) voted against the initial HB 4 and opposed HB 11, questioning the idea of a state agency acting as a lender.
"I don't think the state should be in the banking business. That capital is available through private markets," said Simpson. "What I'm afraid of, if we take that role on as an investment bank, we will make the decisions for those municipalities and regional water supplies based on politics and not based upon their risk and return."
With the future of HB 11 uncertain, some have looked to HB 19 filed by state Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) as a possible alternative. Written in response to Perry's State of the State directive, Darby's bill would use $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund to pay for water and transportation infrastructure projects.
"This drought of record has brought into focus the absolutely critical nature of how we fund water in Texas," said Darby. "Reality is our lakes continue to dry up. We haven't even experienced the hot summer yet. There will be municipalities throughout this state that will run out of water this summer or fall." 
Darby says lawmakers still have options, from HB 19 to resurrecting HB 11 and even taking another look at general revenue. Another option would be for the House to approve SJR 1, a measure passed by the state Senate that would effectively leave the decision to Texas voters in November. The proposal would ask voters to approve allocating $2 billion from the rainy day fund for SWIFT, as well as $2.9 billion for transportation infrastructure and $800 million for schools.
"I'm very optimistic that we're going to fund water infrastructure in this legislative session," said Darby, who admits it won't necessarily be easy. "How do we piecemeal 100 members of the Texas House together to support an initiative? We're still working on that." 
The governor's office has alluded that Perry has no compunction over calling a special session over water funding if the issue isn't resolved by the end of the regular session, and House members' hesitance over HB 11 drew a stern response.
"The people of Texas expect their elected officials to address the water needs of our state, and we will do just that," Perry said in a statement released Monday night. "This issue is too important to leave its fate uncertain, and I will work with lawmakers to ensure we address this need in a fiscally responsible manner."
Asked whether lawmakers could find themselves working through a special session on water, Darby told KVUE, "I think if we don't address the water infrastructure needs I think we could."
Yet both Republicans and Democrats point to the general theme of pragmatic consensus building this session as a sign such a scenario will likely be avoided.
"I suspect when it comes to water and our kids and our teachers we're going to apply that same energy and that same level of commitment," said Martinez Fischer. "My hope is that we'll find a common solution. I think that we will roll up our sleeves, lock ourselves in a room if we have to to find it."  
"The good lord could take care of this in a good, hard rain weekend," joked Darby. "It's up to the Legislature to think more proactive and plan further out."