In the lead-up to the 83rd legislative session, if you were around Austin and paying any attention, water was the metronome of every political discussion, like the proverbial drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet. State leaders, from key committee chairs to the lieutenant governor and governor, made it clear that building up the state’s water infrastructure was a top priority this session. Yet despite water’s saturation of the political priority list, the public still appears ambivalent about Texas’ water needs and out of step with state legislators on how to pay for it.
We wrote about the low salience of the water issue among the general public during the lead up to the legislative session in a previous post, and results from the February 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll bolster that trend: Only 4 percent of Texans chose water as the most important problem facing the state.
But given the increased interest in water at the Capitol, we also asked a few focused questions this time around. When asked how much of a priority funding water infrastructure projects should be this session, a slim majority, 55 percent, said that water should be a “top priority” or “one of the top priorities.” But when asked how to pay for it (among those who indicated that water should be a priority), 39 percent chose a water surcharge from a list of options that also included a “tap fee” and a one-time expenditure. While those at the Capitol favor tapping the Rainy Day Fund (and much of the discussion has been about how much to tap, not if to tap it), only 25 percent of our respondents supported using a one-time expenditure to fund water infrastructure projects.
While it might be tempting to presume that results seemingly pointing to support for increased taxes must conceal underlying partisan differences, don’t be fooled. Both Democrats and Republicans favor the surcharge; it’s the funding mechanism choice of 39 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans. While the current climate dictates that passing anything resembling a tax increase is an invitation to a primary challenge for many members of the Legislature, water appears to be something that Texans are willing to finance on a “pay as you go” basis.
In the end, water isn’t an issue that drives citizens to the polls (at least as long as the tap is still running) or fans the flames of partisan warfare. When put up against other priorities that the Legislature might consider for its 2013-14 budget (restoring cuts to education and human services, continuing to limit government with no new spending or taxes and lowering property and business taxes), water comes in tied for last with lowering taxes. Each were selected by only 14 percent of the public (and in this case, in addition to water, we also tacked roads on to the definition of infrastructure projects).
But if voters don’t appear to be viewing water through partisan lenses, partisan views of budget politics do contribute to relegating water and other infrastructure issues to the bottom of the pile of priorities. Restoring education cuts and limiting government appear to be the partisan issues driving public perceptions of the legislative session: 30 percent would restore cuts to education and human services and 32 percent would continue to limit government. But the top-line results mask the sharp partisan differences we have come to expect on state government spending. Among Democrats, 52 percent would restore cuts, and among Republicans, 51 percent would continue to limit government. So goes the perceived importance of water. Water may be on the minds of legislators and some of the major business interests in the state, but the discussion taking place at the Capitol still hasn’t flooded the consciousness of many Texans.