Opposition forming to massive Texas water plan

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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After pushing a landmark water initiative through the 83rd Legislature, proponents are now gearing up for their next challenge — selling the package to voters.

If ratified in the Nov. 5 election, the proposed constitutional amendment would create a state water development bank that supporters say is vital to help Texas avert a worsening water shortage over the next half-century.

The unfolding campaign appears almost certain to match the contours of the legislative debate, balancing the need to keep Texas economically vibrant with a robust water supply against Tea Party-fueled opposition over spending rainy-day money on the multibillion-dollar program.

Nine other amendments are heading to the state’s 13 million-plus voters, but Senate Joint Resolution 1 is easily the farthest-reaching. Senate Natural Resources Chairman Troy Fraser, a chief proponent, said he hopes to muster “an army of people” into the campaign to push the measure to victory.

The effort is expected to include much of the state’s political leadership, including Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

H204Texas, a coalition that includes chambers of commerce, energy companies, water suppliers and other interests, has already started mapping out a political-style campaign that includes fundraising, media buys, op-ed pieces and elaborate use of social media.

“We’re already in full force,” said Heather Harward, the coalition’s executive director.

SJR1 has strong support among community leaders in the Metroplex. Representatives of the Tarrant County government, the City of Fort Worth and the Arlington Chamber of Commerce testified in behalf of the measure during the Legislature.

“I think voters in Texas understand the challenges that we face with our water needs here,” said state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth. “I definitely will speak in my district about it and certainly encourage the consideration of its passage in my district.“

Matt Geske, director of government affairs for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, said the business-based entity plans to promote the initiative actively, adopting a strategy similar to a high-profile effort the chamber used in helping pass a 2009 constitutional amendment to expand the number of tier one universities in Texas.

“I think it’s going to be a similar push for this one to make sure everyone knows why this is important,” Geske said.

But opposition is also taking shape as an array of conservative groups — including Tea Party and citizens lobby organizations — work their formidable email networks to point up what they say are a number of reasons that the initiative should be defeated.

Recycling a major element from the legislative debate, opponents have begun to denounce the proposed use of $2 billion in state rainy-day funds, which lawmakers approved in a separate appropriations bill to capitalize the proposed bank.

Opponents say that putting the $2 billion into a constitutionally dedicated fund enables supporters to avoid having the money count against a state spending cap, which conservatives both in and out of the Legislature have vowed to protect vigorously.

“We’re going to have to oppose it,” said JoAnn Fleming of Tyler, executive director of Grassroots America, which she said networks with more than 300 Tea Party and liberty organizations.

Fleming said members of her organization and related groups plan to work through summer and fall in a “good old-fashioned grassroots effort” to drum up votes against the initiative. “We’ve been successful with that in the past,” she said.

One influential conservative group, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, came out against the proposal during the just-ended regular legislative session, but group President Michael Quinn Sullivan said in an email that “it’s premature to speculate on what we may or may not be doing in the fall on constitutional amendments.”

“A great many conservative groups opposed SJR1 in the legislature,” said Sullivan, who is president of Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. “We know a lot of folks are going to be talking about it in the fall. If or when we decide to engage in that issue, we’ll engage.”

Chuck Molyneaux of McKinney, 73, a retired software developer who heads the North Texas Citizens Lobby, said his organization is reaching out to its allies in the Tea Party community to oppose the measure and the proposed use of rainy-day funds.

“We’re going to do our best to keep it from being passed,” he said. “This one just reeks of smoke and mirrors.”

Other amendments

Also on the ballot is HJR62, by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, which would grant a property tax exemption to surviving spouses of members of the armed forces killed in combat. Turner said he plans to work with veterans groups statewide to urge voters to support the measure.

“I haven’t heard of any opposition,” he said. “I can’t imagine that there would be any.”

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, is the Senate sponsor of HJR79, which would eliminate an obsolete requirement for a State Medical Education Board and a State Medical Education Fund, neither of which is in operation.

The board was created to advance loans for the practice of medicine in rural counties, but hasn’t made any new loans in 25 years, according to a legislative analysis.

Other amendments deal with targeted tax exemptions, creating a hospital district in Hidalgo County, and mortgage loans.

But the water issue is by far the main event in the upcoming constitutional amendment election, the one that will undoubtedly generate the most attention from voters and advocates on both sides of the issue.

The proposal would create the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, which would be managed by the Texas Water Development Board to provide low-interest loans for local and regional entities to carry out the long-range goals of the State Water Plan.

HB4, companion legislation co-sponsored by Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and House Natural Resources Chairman Allan B. Ritter, R-Nederland, would restructure the Water Development Board into a three-member full-time board and would set up the internal structure for overseeing the water development fund.

Perry, saying he was “making history,” signed HB4 in a ceremony in the governor’s reception room last week as Fraser and Ritter looked on.

Still another piece of legislation — HB1025, a supplemental spending bill — included the $2 billion withdrawal from the rainy-day fund to jump-start the revolving water bank that is contingent on voter approval.

Though voters will decide the final outcome, the legislative package results from a years-long effort to fund the State Water Plan, which calls for a combination of strategies to guarantee that Texas will have water to support its continuing spike in population through 2060.

Huge costs

The estimated cost of meeting just a quarter of the state’s long-term needs is $53 billion, including $27 billion in state financial assistance, according to the State Water Plan. The cost of doing nothing, say architects of the water plan, would be roughly $116 billion in lost income by 2060.

Strategies recommended by regional planning authorities, including the Tarrant Regional Water District, call for conservation, drought management, reservoirs, wells, water reuse, desalination and other steps.

According to the State Water Plan, 34 percent of the water needs would come from conservation and reuse, 17 percent from major new reservoirs and 34 percent from other surface water supplies.

Environment Texas, a leading environmental coalition, has endorsed the water initiative but plans a door-knocking campaign to urge the Water Development Board to maximize investment in conservation and “avoid projects with significant environmental harm,” said Luke Metzger, the group’s director.

Despite emerging opposition from the Tea Party and allied groups, Fraser said he believes that the initiative has “universal approval” across Texas after years of devastating drought.

“I’ve never had anyone tell me that this is a bad idea,” he told the Star-Telegram.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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