Public Opinion Creates Rough Sailing for Water Policy

The rough seas that sank the Texas House's attempt to fund the state water plan on Monday night with a $2 billion draw on the Rainy Day Fund highlighted the limits of consensus on both how to pay for water development — and the where those projects rank among other budget priorities.

The differences suggest that lawmakers may well be receiving signals from their constituents that echo what has been evident in the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll for months: Funding the water plan is not as clear a priority for the public as it is for the leadership and the business community. 

Thus, all the talk about water, which commenced almost as soon as the 82nd Legislature came to its end, was not enough to gain the 100 House votes necessary to open the spigot on the Rainy Day Fund (nor, for that matter, for the Senate to opt for an approach more direct than attempting to punt the matter to the voters).

A central problem for proponents of the current strategy, which at least for the moment has run aground, is that water has not soaked into the public consciousness to nearly the same degree as it has the political class and business community.

The UT/Texas Tribune Poll has consistently found water to be near the bottom of the “most important problem” items in the last several surveys. When asked to choose legislative spending priorities in the February 2013 survey at the beginning of the session, Democrats were much more interested in restoring cuts from last session, especially in public education, and Republicans were more interested in continuing to limit government spending. There was no rush to fund water without prompting in the survey (that is, calling respondents' attention to the issue), and very few voters, Republican or Democrat, were inclined to rank it as their top priority, even after the issue was brought to their attention.

These patterns in public opinion offer no analysis on whether the coalition of government leaders and business interests looking to tap the Rainy Day Fund to prime the pump of the state water plan have chosen good policy. It does, however, highlight an interesting example of the Legislature being confronted with attempting to make policy when the degree of consensus about policy choices and priorities among business and political leadership is not reflected in public opinion.

It would seem there has been a lot more leading than following in this particular case. The ability of the business-legislative alliance on water will be tested in the few remaining weeks of the session as water advocates attempt to right the ship using one of several legislative options remaining. It wouldn’t be the first time that a lukewarm public gave way to the priorities of a mobilized group of business interests — this is a hallmark of the much-discussed “Texas Model” — but the crosscurrents that sank HB 11 on Monday remain strong.

Tribune pollster Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin. 

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