Straus: House Will Find Way to Fund Water Projects

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, says his 83rd session priorities will be education and water while speaking at TribLive on Feb. 6, 2013.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, says his 83rd session priorities will be education and water while speaking at TribLive on Feb. 6, 2013.

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The morning after a major bill to authorize spending billions of dollars on state water projects faltered in the House, Speaker Joe Straus' office released a statement saying he wouldn't "let a technicality seal the debate on water."

Straus "remains committed to working with appropriators, members of the House and stakeholders to ensure funding for the state water plan this session," the statement said. 

The author of House Bill 11 — which did not reach a vote because of a procedural problem with it — seemed less optimistic on Tuesday morning, saying, "You know as much as I know at this point."

Original story:  

A major bill on the top of Gov. Rick Perry's priority list that would authorize spending billions of dollars on state water projects faltered in the Texas House on Monday night after a contentious debate over where to pull the money from.

“My understanding is it’s doorknob dead,” the bill's sponsor, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, said after debate on the measure, which was backed by Speaker Joe Straus, was halted over a legislative technicality. 

In a statement, Perry said Texans "expect their elected officials to address the water needs of our state, and we will do just that."

"This issue is too important to leave its fate uncertain," he said, "and I will work with lawmakers to ensure we address this need in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Ritter’s bill, House Bill 11, would have taken $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund — a multibillion-dollar reserve of mostly oil and gas taxes — and spent it on water-supply projects, in an effort to help the state withstand future droughts. 

Another Ritter bill the House passed earlier this month, House Bill 4, would create a special fund to administer the money. 

But HB 11’s backers faced an uphill battle to get enough votes, because drawing from the Rainy Day Fund requires a higher bar — 100 votes rather than the usual 76 votes — to pass.

Democrats’ objections were grounded in the argument that if the Rainy Day Fund gets used for water, it should also be raided for other purposes like public education. Some far-right conservatives, meanwhile, worried about drawing at all from the Rainy Day Fund, which they say should be reserved for emergencies.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, ultimately avoided a vote on HB 11 by raising a point of order, a legislative term for a procedural problem with the bill. Ritter said the bill in its current form is now dead; Perry has previously threatened to call a special session if lawmakers cannot find a way to fund water projects. 

If lawmakers do not provide the funding, “I think we’re back in special session, but that’s above my pay grade,” Ritter said.

The Senate, meanwhile, has already passed a measure to move $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund into public education and water and transportation projects. 

House Republicans on Monday rallied around an amendment by Ritter to HB 11 that would have authorized the state to draw $2 billion from nondedicated general revenue if lawmakers wanted to fund water projects. It was an effort to make an end-run around Democrats, who could later be forced to vote for HB 11 and the Rainy Day Fund withdrawal for water if they wanted to forestall a drawdown of general revenue.

Democrats reacted with fury, saying that the amendment drawing down general revenue would cut into other priorities like public education.

“I don’t think most of you can stand robbing little children in Texas to pay for water problems in Texas. That would be a travesty, members,” said Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston.

Later, Turner's point of order won out.

Monday did bring some partial victories for water project backers. Texas senators passed two bills, HB 4 (already passed by the House) and Senate Bill 4, both of which would create a special fund to administer the water money. The money would be loaned out to local governments, who would pay it back so that it could be loaned out again.

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, commenting after Turner’s point of order won out, voiced determination to see a water bill through. “If we don’t fix this, I think a lot of people’s political careers will be on the line,” he said.

Brandi Grissom contributed to this article. 

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