Point of order kills water bill

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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One of the top priorities of the 2013 legislative session — a $2 billion measure to fund state water projects — sustained a devastating setback Monday after it was knocked off the House floor on a point of order.

House Natural Resources Chairman Allan Ritter declared the bill “doorknob dead” after the ruling by the House parliamentarian but said there could be other options to pursue.

“This one’s getting a little bit tough,” said Ritter, R-Nederland. “The chances with the bill that we did today is over. It’s dead. So what are the other mechanisms? We’ll look and see.”

Gov. Rick Perry has placed water, transportation and tax relief among his top priorities. His office warned last week that the governor will call lawmakers back into special session this summer if they fail to act on any of those issues. The current 140-day session ends May 27.

“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 responding to the House action. “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.”

Ritter’s bill, HB11, called for a drawdown of $2 billion from the state’s rainy-day fund, also known as the Economic Stabilization Fund, as part of an ambitious long-term plan to finance local and regional water projects over the next half-century.

While the House was embroiled in debate over using the Rainy Day Funds for water projects, Senators approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would create the state-managed revolving fund from which the money would be drawn.

The two-part legislative package, embraced by Perry and top legislative leaders, is designed to address a growing water shortage caused by one of the state’s worst droughts in history.

The governor affirmed his support for using Rainy Day money to fund water projects during a meeting with Republican House members in a closed-door caucus just before the House session.

But HB11 appeared to be in trouble throughout hours of debate amid opposition from both tea party conservatives who opposed tapping into the Rainy Day Fund and from unified Democrats demanding that more money be used for education.

Lawmakers need a two-third majority in the 150-member House to withdraw money from the Rainy Day Fund.

But it was a procedural motion that brought down the bill after Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asserted the measure violated a rule on the consideration of appropriations bills. Parliamentarian Chris Griesel sustained the point of order in a ruling announced by House Speaker Joe Straus.

At a press conference afterward, Democrats said they are committed to funding water and transportation, but want to ensure that the Legislature commits to restoring $5.4 billion in education cuts that were imposed by the 2011 Legislature

Democratic proposals have called for an equal split on the major priorities — $2 billion for water, $2 billion for transportation and $2 billion for education.

“When we started the session, the number one issue for us as Democrats was the restoration of the cuts to public education,” said Turner. “That was the number one priority then. It remains the number one priority now.”

Under the water initiatives, voters would be asked to authorize a special state fund to implement a 50-year, $53 billion package of strategies ranging from conservation to new reservoirs.

Municipal water planners are expected to need $27 billion from the state to develop the projects.

The proposed State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT), which would be administered by the Texas Water Development Board, appears to be the less contentious element of the legislative plan, with widespread agreement that Texas needs to address the worsening water shortage.

Rainy-day debate

But the method of capitalizing the fund – through a proposed drawdown of the rainy-day fund – has ignited strong opposition that was on display in the House debate.

Tea Party Republicans have raised concerns that dipping into the fund could possibly jeopardize the state’s Triple-AAA bond rating. “I don’t want to raid the Rainy Day Fund,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.

Democrats, who, with 55 members, had enough leverage to prevent a two-third majority required for Rainy Day Fund withdrawal, appeared unified in demanding that the Rainy Funds be used to help restore the 2011 education cuts.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, the number two member of the House Democratic Leadership, said Democrats support resolving the state’s water problem “but not until we fund education first.”

The Senate, in a less contentious debate, dealt with the funding issue last week by approving a constitutional amendment that would withdraw $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, including $2 billion for water, $2.9 billion for transportation, and $800 million for public education.

As passed by the Senate on Monday, and earlier by the House, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas would constitute a water infrastructure bank that will revolve funds designed to fully finance all the strategies included in the 2012 plan.

Environmentalists expressed a preference for the Senate version, saying it devoted almost three times the amount targeted for conservation over the 2012 state water plan.

“It’s a historic increase in funding for conservation and sets Texas on a more sustainable path for our water future,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas.

Rising demand

Texas’ water plan projects that water demand will increase 22 percent while supplies decrease by 10 percent over the next 50 years.

The population is expected to surge from 25.4 million in 2010 to 46.3 million in 2060.

In the 16 counties anchored by the Metroplex, water demands are expected to increase 86 percent over the next half-century as the population doubles from 6.6 million to 13 million.

Chad Lorance, communications director for the Tarrant Regional Water District, said the proposed funds “would help offset the financial burden on the local water providers who are already planning for these shortages.

“Any delay in funding would put long-term planning of water projects in jeopardy and increase the overall cost to customers.”

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief.

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