Lawmakers across the Texas Capitol are tearing rotator cuffs patting themselves on the back for finding a way to pay for desperately needed water infrastructure projects.
“This is making history. We’re securing the future of our great state by making sure that Texas has the water it needs for decades to come," Gov. Rick Perry said at Monday's bill signing for House Bill 4, which is a crucial part of lawmakers’ efforts this session to fund a water plan.
Crucial, but not singular. Spending money to increase water capacity in Texas took a few bills this session, including one that generated a constitutional proposition and much legislative debate.
The Senate wanted Texas voters to have the final say on whether or not the state took $2 billion out of the Rainy Day Fund to pay for water infrastructure projects. The House and its lead budget writer, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said no deal.
“We insisted that we were not going to start doing a referendum type of government in Texas, like they do in California," Pitts said. "We were elected, 150 members over here and 31 members over there, to make these decisions."
Instead, the Legislature appropriated that $2 billion on its own. But that move still leaves voters in charge in November, because without passage of a constitutional amendment to create the bank accounts to put the money in, the $2 billion can’t be spent.
Arnold Vedlitz doesn’t think that’s going to be a problem. He is director of the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service Texas A&M University.
The institute released a poll this spring showing overwhelming concern and support for water projects among Texas voters. The poll did not directly ask if people would support a constitutional amendment, but it did get their opinion on dozens of other water-related issues.
“Based on what the people are thinking now, what they’re concerned about, what they’re willing to do, who they expect to do it, how much they expect this to cost — I am a betting man; I play poker — I would bet on this passing," Vedlitz said.
But that’s if the election were held tomorrow. He said plenty can happen between now and November to derail that victory.
“Amendments can be worded in crazy ways that confuse the population. What if it rained every day between now and then and everything was flooded?" Vedlitz said. "Or what if a particular right-wing or left-wing constituency decided to make a campaign against it?”
Did someone say right wing?
Enter state Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who has led the charge this session for all things Tea Party in the House.
"I will certainly be one to campaign across the state against it. I think there are a lot of conservative groups that see this kind of assault on Texas’ financial health as something that needs to be campaigned against," Taylor said at the end of the regular session.
And he’ll have support across the state. A number of Tea Party groups came to Austin during the legislative session to make it clear they are opposed to just about any spending out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
That opposition didn’t keep water bills from passing during the session, but remember: Constitutional elections only average about 8 percent voter turnout, so a small but energized Tea Party could certainly make its numbers count in November.
Those who want the amendment to pass, including dozens of business groups and municipalities, will spend the summer and fall doing their best to turn out the vote as well, hoping support for the amendment doesn’t dry up.