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Pricey State Problems and Penny-Pinching Voters

Texas voters said yes to a big-ticket proposition for water projects and no to some other spending items, leaving a question for policymakers with a to-do list full of expensive problems: Is the public willing to go along?

The Colorado River is shown east of Longhorn Dam in Austin. The capital city is almost entirely reliant on the Colorado River and its system of dammed reservoirs for water,

Texas voters overwhelmingly told the state government to open a $2 billion account to finance water projects this week, a little beam of sunshine for conservative politicians asking their price-sensitive constituents to spend some money.

The supportive numbers for that proposition on financing the projects were healthy, but evidence of voters’ thrift was easy to find: In local elections on the same day, here in the middle of football season, voters killed proposals that would have converted the once-beloved Astrodome into a convention hub and would have enshrined a district’s football teams — this time in the Katy school district — in a $69.5 million stadium of their own.

State lawmakers will be back for more water money at some point, but that’s far from their most expensive pressing problem. Next year, they will try to sell voters on $1 billion in highway financing, and they will have to return quickly to that subject for still more after that — whether the voters say yes or no.

Expensive problems are stacked up like 18-wheelers and commuters on I-35. The water vote went okay in spite of some pushback from conservatives, but the real tests are still ahead.

Money is always among the biggest political problems for state officeholders. They promise to do things that voters really want done — serious things, like providing paved roads, clean water, education, prisons, hospitals and police. They promise not to do things that voters really don’t like, a list topped in recent years by raising taxes, issuing fees and increasing debt and spending.

The lists collide. Politicians are trapped by their own best intentions, eager to provide voters with what they want, but stuck between competing demands. Those of us who pull the levers in the ballot boxes are not clear or consistent, and when we are, we are often in disagreement about what we want.

The tension for the policy makers is simple to describe: If there is a difference between the amount of money available and the cost of the programs and services voters demand, which gets cut?

Some promises can be broken, or managed, a little at a time, without voters taking notice. That’s how you end up with situations in which too few regulators are on hand to ensure state regulations are followed, or a public building shortens its hours. Government can get away with cuts like those, up to the point when they turn into headlines about something happening because of a hole in the safety net. Those nets always have holes in them; writing a budget is the art of deciding how big those holes are going to be.

Some holes are difficult to hide, especially in fundamental and expensive programs like water, transportation and schools.

The state’s leaders gambled and won on water. The drought afflicting the state helped. Low lakes and browning lawns helped. And the money was in the state’s hands already: The new water fund will be created from another — the Rainy Day Fund — that is already on hand. It does not require new taxes or fees.

Transportation will require new money. In one proposal, the stretch of I-35 that runs through Austin would be converted to a toll road while a stretch of a new toll road east of town would become a freeway. That would regulate traffic and perhaps raise some money.

It would almost certainly make some people mad, too. But confronted with ideas like that one, voters might be willing to cough up the money the state needs to build the roads those same voters are demanding.

The policy makers will need all of their political skills. The sales job on water was based on the twin pillars of high demand in a high-growth state and the evident shortages brought on by that growth and by the drought.

The highway argument is similar. The state has been a magnet for new people who, among other things, clog the roads. The state’s gasoline taxes do not produce enough money to keep up, the limit on debt is within sight and the demand for new roads is strong.

This stuff is expensive. Highway experts say they need billions more just to maintain current levels of congestion.

The political class will have to find out what the traffic will bear.

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