Constitutional amendment for H20: Fulfills need but faces tough odds

Last Thursday, Texas Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, filed Senate Joint Resolution 1, a proposal to spend $2.5 billion on water supply projects and $3.5 billion on infrastructure and transportation. It would also amend the Texas Constitution to create a permanent State Water Implementation Fund, as well as a similar funding source for infrastructure.

The proposal was quickly moved to a hearing in the Finance Committee, where it passed unanimously. It now awaits debate and a vote on the Senate floor, where it is likely to pass.

Senators from both sides of the aisle claim to support the bill, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, argued as he voted “yes” that the funding proposal should include a substantial amount of Rainy Day Fund money for public education as well, saying, “We shouldn’t pit the need for water or highways against public education.”

Several expressed reservations about whether the proposed transportation funding would be adequate, but Williams emphasized that it was not a panacea. Rather it is “part of a solution” to the problems. The most prominent part of the proposal — the creation of the water fund — was also the most popular. Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, called it “visionary.”

One of the most appealing aspects of SJR 1 is that it allows for greater expenditures for water management than have been previously proposed. Williams’ spokesman Gary Scharrer said that a constitutional amendment “carries no risk of running up against the state’s spending cap,” as that $97 billion limit does not apply to spending specifically outlined in the Texas Constitution.

While we support such a comprehensive move to fund the projects called for in the Texas Water Development Board’s 2012 State Water Plan, the proposal sets the stage for a precarious scenario by making the entire initiative contingent on one statewide vote in November.

Other legislative attempts to fund water supply projects have taken the form of bills rather than constitutional amendments and as such are subject to the legislative process — and the threat of a veto by Gov. Rick Perry. In his 2013 State of the State speech, Perry mentioned the need to spend money on both water and transportation, but his proposal was over $2 billion less than Williams’. If passed by the Legislature, SJR 1 would bypass Perry’s desk.

Scharrer also said, “On these big projects it’s good to get voter approval.” But there are several reasons why such a referendum could end in disaster.

A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted in February reported that only 4 percent of Texans considered water the most important issue facing the state — and that’s the highest percentage since 2010. Even in this period of severe drought, water supply isn’t an issue that galvanizes the public. That likely has a lot to do with the daunting complexity of the problem, as well as the fact that most Texans’ taps are still running just fine.

Another problem is that the vote is scheduled for an off-year election cycle. In November 2011, only 5 percent of Texans went to the polls (compared to almost 60 percent in the 2012 elections). That low turnout was a contributing factor in the demise of the last legislative session’s proposed constitutional amendment, which would have provided tax incentives to landowners for water conservation.

That amendment was defeated despite the absence of any organized opposition. This one, if it passes the Legislature, will almost certainly face organized opposition. Conservative advocacy groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have already come out against existing plans to spend money from the Rainy Day Fund on water management. A statement posted March 25 on the TPPF website claims that a two-thirds vote for such spending “would set a dangerous precedent in setting Texas on the path of growing government ahead of the people’s ability to pay for it.” Instead, they argue that the Legislature should “return the [Rainy Day Fund] money to the people with a tax cut.” SJR 1 would spend half a billion dollars more than the one that statement protested.

Such ideological opposition to necessary attempts to save our state is shortsighted at best. The question about such measures should not be whether they cost too much, but whether doing everything possible will actually be enough to prepare for the unprecedented water shortage that is approaching Texas like an oncoming train.

We support funding as much of the State Water Plan as possible, but we remain unconvinced that a constitutional amendment is the best way to do that. If Williams’ amendment goes to the polls in November, opposition groups could take advantage of what will almost certainly be a very small and unmotivated voter turnout and kill the proposal. If this is the path the Legislature chooses, then it’s absolutely vital that the amendment pass in November. If it doesn’t, then all of the efforts this session to prepare for the coming crisis will have gone in vain.