Politics & Government

Fort Worth lawmakers team up to stave off attack on their water project

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, talks to the media outside of the U.S. Courthouse on July 14, 2014, in San Antonio.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, talks to the media outside of the U.S. Courthouse on July 14, 2014, in San Antonio. AP

Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, was just getting off the plane on Monday afternoon from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport for Congress’ last week before the elections when his staff told him that a massive flood control and economic development project in his community was in big trouble.

“Literally, on Monday when I stepped off the plane I heard there was concern about the parks and recreation aspect,” Veasey said in an interview. By that evening the sophomore lawmaker was speaking at the House Rules Committee – for only the third time since being elected – in opposition to an amendment from a fellow Democrat that would, he felt, gut the project. The rules panel decides which amendments are eligible for a House vote.

The Trinity River Vision is a flood control/economic development project that is designated to get $526 million in federal funding as part of a $5 billion House water projects authorization bill for the Army Corps of Engineers. Advocates say the project, already under construction with some local and some federal monies, will transform Fort Worth, but critics question the need for such a large federal contribution. A similar bill that includes the Fort Worth project has passed the Senate.

That day and for the next two days, Veasey and Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who both represent portions of Fort Worth, were talking to each other and to members from their parties in defense of the project.

Granger was in Israel on Friday attending the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres and unavailable for comment. But Granger spokesman Jim Specht told McClatchy, “Congresswoman Granger was aware of the amendment when it was filed in rules (committee) and she spoke to both the chairman of the Rules Committee and the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee reaffirming her strong support for the Trinity River Vision project.” Granger’s son directs the Trinity River Vision Authority.

On the other side, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., was also energetic. As the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he carries weight with members on the water projects bill, the Water Resources Development Act.

DeFazio said in an interview that he was always skeptical of the Fort Worth project. “When it was proposed in committee, I said, ‘What is this?’ ” he said, describing it as “clearly an earmark.” Congressional Republicans stopped the practice of earmarking local projects for funding in 2010. But he said that he did not object because he was part of the “big four” – the two top Republicans and Democrats on the panel – who had agreed on a package that was approved unanimously by the committee in May.

But when House leaders decided in the last few days before the election recess to remove a provision creating a harbor maintenance trust fund he said he had been working on for 20 years, DeFazio took off after Trinity River Vision. At over $500 million in funding, it was a big target.

“I had not been a fan of the Fort Worth project but I was going to let it go until they stripped out my harbor trust fund,” he said. The trust fund would bank the fees now collected for harbor maintenance to ensure they were spent on harbor projects. House leaders want to keep the fee system included in the appropriations process, where lawmakers can retain control.

DeFazio said he saw the Trinity River Vision project as a “boondoggle,” and an amendment he tried to offer to the bill targeted the recreational facilities – such as soccer and baseball fields and a water park that are part of the overall project – because they are ineligible for Army Corps funding. He also said the Fort Worth project needed to undergo a cost/benefit analysis by the Corps of Engineers. The University of North Texas has done a study finding economic benefit but DeFazio said it was not enough.

Veasey said he spoke to DeFazio, who seemed surprised to learn that a fellow Democrat supported the project. And the Texan said the criticism of the project was wrong about the parks. “Federal support isn’t going to pay for any of those things,” he said.

Still, DeFazio was undeterred. He wasn’t able to get his amendment approved for a vote so he used a tactical procedure, a motion to recommit, on the Fort Worth project. This is usually a partisan device to get Democrats on record on an issue they want to highlight, since as the minority party they don’t have the votes to approve the motion. But it is unusual that it would be used on such a narrow issue.

The vote, 181-243, was almost entirely on party lines and easily defeated the amendment. There was one Democrat who joined all Republicans and voted against it: Veasey.