Water plan complicates passage of budget deal in Texas House

Posted Tuesday, May. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Legislative leaders confronted more delays Tuesday in trying to finalize a state budget agreement as House members deferred action on one key component — a far-reaching water plan — to sidestep a fatal deadline.

With the midnight deadline just hours away, House members voted 148-1 to suspend the rules to allow the measure to be considered for passage in two consecutive votes on Wednesday, and possibly Thursday.

The water initiative, and possibly the entire budget, would have died by midnight Tuesday without the rules suspension.

The vote was also seen as an early test of a proposed constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate.

“We’re trying to make sure we have the two-thirds that is necessary to pass the bill,” said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

The proposed initiative, which would go to voters on Nov. 5, calls for the creation of a long-range water development bank and is a key element of the two-year budget compact. The compromise was negotiated late last week but is still awaiting final approval.

The Legislature’s regular session ends Monday.

The budget deal, spread over several pieces of legislation, grants Democratic demands for $3.9 billion in restored education funding. It also includes commitments on Gov. Perry’s top priorities — water, transportation and tax relief.

A difficult deal

But efforts to tie a bow around the package have eluded budget negotiators.

A number of Democrats and Republicans have said they didn’t want to vote on the critical water bill until they see a supplemental spending bill that is still in the Senate.

That bill includes $200 million of the $3.9 billion in education funding and would also be the vehicle for a $2 billion withdrawal from the state’s rainy day fund for the water plan. Some Democrats have said they want assurances that the education money will really be made available; conservative Republicans oppose the rainy day fund withdrawal.

As a result, confusion and uncertainty hung over both chambers as legislative leaders tried to sort out the problems and ease skepticism among members. Some lawmakers warned that the delay threatened to blow up the carefully negotiated budget deal – guaranteeing that Perry would call a special session – but others expressed confidence that the impasse would be resolved.

“Nothing has changed,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, the No. 2 member of the House Democratic leadership. “It’s just going to take a few more days to pass all the bills.”

Asked if the budget compromise was on the verge of collapse, he said: “I have no reason to believe it is. It’s just taking a little longer than everyone thought.”

But state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, a leading Republican conservative, said many lawmakers in his party were troubled because they haven’t seen the companion spending measure — HB1025 — and worry about the size of the drawdown from the rainy day fund.

“It’s like being asked the answer to a math problem if you don’t have the question in front of you,” he said. “It’s got the feel of a deal that’s falling apart, but we’ll see.”

Tensions were evident throughout the day as legislative leaders and key lawmakers huddled in budget discussions. During conversations on the House floor, lawmakers repeatedly wondered about the outlook for the water bill, noting that Tuesday was the last day to consider Senate-passed joint resolutions containing proposed constitutional amendments.

Expected votes on the water measure came and went Monday and Tuesday. With the approach of the deadline, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, asked lawmakers to suspend the rules to defer consideration.

Action moves to Senate

Several senators seemed upset as they gathered around the desk of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer, for an update on the various budget bills.

“This is a whole new level,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who left the discussion. “I’m done.”

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said she was prepared to stay calm until she sees how the budget discussions play out.

“I’ve seen this rodeo before,” she said.

Tea Party-backed Republican lawmakers and a number of outside conservative groups have come out in opposition to the proposed amendment.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said he supports the state’s needs to move forward on addressing long-range water demands. But he said he opposes the proposed amendment, SJR1, because “it doesn’t have that much transparency” about how the money will be spent.

The proposed amendment, he said, “also pushes the responsibility off onto the voters. I think the people voted for me to go make these tough decisions and I don’t feel comfortable kicking this off to the voters.”

But Capriglione said he thinks the measure is nevertheless “likely to pass.” He said he believes the proposed amendment has support from all 55 Democrats, who support the education increases, and at least 60 of the chamber’s 95 Republicans.

Dave Montgomery is the

Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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