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Agenda Texas: Tanking the Water Bill

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: The bill that was supposed to pay for Texas' water plan suffered a setback in the House on Monday night, leaving state leaders with a narrow set of options.

Low water levels at Lake Travis because of drought; photo taken May 16, 2011.

You might have heard that a major effort to pay for water projects went down in flames Monday night in the Texas House. House Bill 11 would have spent $2 billion out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund to finally fund the state’s 50-year water plan.

KUT’s StateImpact Texas reporter Mose Buchele was at last night’s debate. He said there were two groups that wanted the bill changed.

"The Tea Party contingent of the Republican Party is not happy with the bill as it stands — they don't like the idea of taking money from the Rainy Day Fund," Buchele said. "On the other side, there were the Democrats in the House. They're amenable maybe to funding water projects, but they'd also like to open the Rainy Day Fund for other projects like education."

The bill needed a two-thirds majority vote in order to authorize spending Rainy Day Fund money. But the bill's supporters didn't have the votes needed going into the debate Monday night. Buchele said that led to an attempt to bring in more support — an attempt that didn't work.

"That basically shaped up into this amendment to potentially, if they didn't have the votes to unlock the Rainy Day Fund, to then take the money for the water plan out of general revenue," Buchele said.

There are a few options for what to do next. One is simple: Wait a few days and bring back HB 11. Or lawmakers can add the $2 billion in rainy day money to another eligible bill.

“I’m not ready to push the panic button yet," said Sierra Club water expert Ken Kramer.

Kramer has been lobbying hard on this bill. But he says his years of advocating environmental issues tells him it’s never over until it’s over.

“I’ve had the experience of seeing some of the priority legislation for the state decided on the last day of the session even through extraordinary measures," Kramer said. "So where there’s a will, there’s a way."

Especially if that way has the backing of the state’s three top legislative officials. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s Senate has already passed a way to fund the water plan. And state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, says the other members of the “Big Three” are on board as well.

“The governor and the speaker have clearly indicated this is their No. 1 priority," Larson said, adding, "And if we’ve got a drought that persists, it will be the No. 1 issue in everybody’s district."

One of the big debates is whether the state should take $2 billion out of the Rainy Day Fund, its savings account, or from general revenue, the regular pot of money the state uses to pay for everything else.

Larson supports using the Rainy Day Fund. Tea Party members will need a little more convincing. That group of Republican lawmakers doesn’t want any of the projected $12 billion Rainy Day Fund to be spent, although they might allow it to pay for a business tax cut.

So the battle continues. But with less than four weeks left in the session, Kramer said, something would need to happen quickly.

"I don’t really think that we can wait another two years to move forward down the road on funding some elements of the state water plan," Kramer said.

Gov. Rick Perry has already threatened to call a 30-day special legislative session on water if a plan isn’t in place before May 27.

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