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Guest Column: Let Voters Decide on Rainy Day Spending

The best way to finance Texas' pressing water and transportation needs — and to supplement spending on public education — is to let voters decide whether to use the state's Rainy Day Fund.

By Tommy Williams
State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, during a state budget debate on March 20, 2013.

Texas voters will get an opportunity this fall to address our state's fast-growing and worsening water and transportation funding problems if the House approves Senate Joint Resolution 1, which won unanimous approval from the Texas Senate last week.

Texas is literally running out of water. Our highways are clogging up, and money for new road construction runs out after the 2015 fiscal year — unless we change the status quo.

SJR 1 will provide voter approval to use money we already have sitting in the bank to help finance transportation and water projects and also to send an additional $800 million to public schools. Altogether, if voters agree, the plan will access $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, formally called the Economic Stabilization Fund. It would leave a balance in the Rainy Day Fund exceeding $6 billion — and that amount will continue to grow in future years thanks to our booming oil and gas industry, which generates revenue for the state's savings account. 

Some important points about the proposal:

  • It does not bust the constitutional spending limit.
  • It will protect our “AAA” bond rating and keep enough money in the fund to handle major natural disasters.
  • It avoids mortgaging our kids' future.
  • Most importantly, it will keep Texas’ economy growing and moving forward and enable us to improve Texas public schools.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs has endorsed the SJR 1 proposal, saying it deserves to go to voters, in her words, "for what I view as an ideal, one-time use of taxpayer dollars."

Texas leads the nation in job growth and business development precisely because of the business- and family-friendly laws we have in place. The governor and I agree that it is not fiscally conservative or realistic to ignore our growth issues when it comes to transportation and water demands. Without addressing these basic needs, our strengthening economy could stumble. 

SJR 1 takes a reasonable step to provide traffic congestion relief across Texas and ensure adequate water supplies to keep our economy growing and creating new jobs.  Texas is woefully behind in keeping up with population growth when it comes to funding transportation infrastructure and future water supplies. The state's population grew, on average, by 1,176 people each and every day from 2000 to 2010, according to the state's demographer.

The 2012 State Water Plan sent a sobering message: "In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises."

We have approximately 188 major water supply reservoirs in Texas. More than 100 of them were built between 1950 and 1980. Fewer than 10 Texas reservoirs have been built over the past 23 years. Building reservoirs to collect and contain water is not the only solution as multiple steps are needed to ensure future water supplies for Texans. Reservoirs are part of the solution, and it takes a long time to design and build a reservoir. Time is running out — if we don't act.

SJR 1 would take $2 billion from our savings account to create a loan program allowing local communities to borrow money for water projects. The fund will become perpetual because new water project loans will be made as existing loans are repaid.

Our parents and our grandparents invested in us when they secured our current-day water supplies and built the interstate highway system from scratch. We can't afford not to conservatively and prudently invest in our children's future.

The average Houston-area commuter wasted 52 hours in traffic congestion in 2011, according to a recent Urban Mobility Report by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. Houston-area traffic congestion has more than doubled over the past 30 years and continues to worsen. Traffic congestion in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex has increased from seven annual hours of wasted time in 1982 to 45 hours in 2011, according to the Urban Mobility Report.

Transportation projects are incredibly expensive — costing billions of dollars to complete freeway segments; a single major freeway interchange can cost $250 million. We have nearly 9,000 bridges in Texas considered either "functionally obsolete"  or "structurally deficient." It can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to replace a major bridge. How are we going to pay for it?

SJR 1 offers a partial solution. We still must work on developing a robust funding source for our transportation needs because SJR 1 simply buys us some time. If we want to make a real dent in our traffic congestion, we need to increase our annual highway construction contracts by 50 to 100 percent. We don't have a robust funding source to get there right now.

We have borrowed close to $20 billion in recent years to cover our highway needs. SJR 1 would take $2.9 billion from our savings to pay cash for projects currently slated to be financed with bonds not yet sold. Using cash would save a projected $5.6 billion of debt service over the 30-year life of the bonds. We should not borrow or move funds to cover up the state’s real needs.

Voter approval of the measure will leave a Rainy Day Fund balance similar to the amount we left in the fund last session.

This represents a reasonable and conservative approach to address our state's needs. Water is our lifeline. Modern roads provide mobility for people and commerce. Transportation is a lifeline. An educated workforce is another lifeline for Texas.

SJR 1 is the best alternative to address our funding needs.

Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, is the primary author of SJR 1. He represents all or parts of Montgomery, Harris, Jefferson, Chambers and Galveston counties.

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Public education State government Transportation Budget Rainy Day Fund Texas Legislature Water supply