Water Debate: Nine statewide propositions up for November vote


Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent

AUSTIN – After provoking a contentious debate in the state Legislature earlier this year, an initiative to help drought-ridden Texas meet its water needs for the next half-century will now go to the voters with a strong push from Gov. Rick Perry and broad support among Metroplex business leaders. Proposition 6 is one of nine constitutional amendments facing a final decision by Texas voters in the Nov. 5 election. Early voting is slated to begin Monday, Oct. 22 and will extend through Nov. 1.

Also on the ballot is a measure authored by Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie) to provide property tax exemptions for the spouses of fallen service members. Another initiative is designed to help the region’s aerospace industry by extending an inventory tax exemption on aircraft parts. If approved, the initiatives will further alter the much-revamped 1876 Constitution that Texans ratified after the turbulent Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War.

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In the 137 years since that governing document was first passed, Texans have added 474 amendments, including seven tacked on in 2011. Constitutional amendments traditionally generate low interest among the electorate, and the 2013 ballot initiatives are expected to continue that trend. Election experts are predicting that fewer than 10 percent of the state’s 13.4 million registered voters will decide the outcome by the time the polls close at 7 p.m. on Election Day. Only 5.3 percent cast ballots in 2011. This will be the first statewide election in which voters will be required to show photo identification when they go to polling stations. The law, which the U.S. Justice Department has challenged as being discriminatory to minority voters, was passed in 2011 and requires that voters display one of seven approved forms of photo ID. Supporters of Proposition 6 are hoping that their warnings about a potential looming water shortage will swell turnout and encourage voters to rally behind the measure. But they face late-surfacing opposition from tea party activists and some environmental groups, who have mounted an organized “Nix Prop Six” campaign to derail the proposal.

The initiative would create a state revolving fund capitalized by a $2 billion withdrawal from the state’s rainy day account to help finance more than $30 billion in water projects midway through the 21st century. A 2011 State Water Plan has warned that statewide water demand is expected to increase by 22 percent through 2060 while existing supplies decrease by 10 percent. Perry, who is in his last four-year term as the state’s longest-serving governor, has been touring the state to promote the measure, at one point choosing a spot on Lake Travis near Austin to illustrate the ravages of the worst drought to hit Texas since the 1950s. The sprawling lake, which serves as Austin’s major water supplier, is 34 percent full and is pocked with islands and a broadening shoreline that was once covered by water. Other members of the state’s Republican leadership have also united behind the proposal, raising more than $1 million in a “Water Texas” political action committee to promote the initiative.

Proposition 6 has strong support among chambers of commerce in North Texas, who say that maintaining adequate water supplies is essential to ensuring continued economic growth. State water planners have warned that Texas would lose roughly $116 billion in potential income by 2060 if it does nothing to meet its future water needs. “This is economic development 101 to me,” said Bill Thornton, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. “You can have all the highways you want, you can have all the rail lines, you can have the greatest airport, you can have the greatest tax environment, but if you can’t guarantee a manufacturer that they’re going to have a quality and affordable water supply for decades to come, you’re going to have a hard time getting people to continue to commit resources to the state.” The Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association is also urging passage. “Texas is still coping with a historic drought that has left many ranchers and areas in rural Texas struggling to find adequate water supplies,” Pete Bonds, rancher and TSCRA president, said in a statement. Thornton said that nearly a dozen chambers of commerce in North Texas held recent meetings in Dallas and Irving to unite behind the amendment. The chambers, Thornton said, were urged to pass resolutions similar to one adapted by the Fort Worth Chamber to “get the word out that this is important to North Texas and Texas.”

“They realize that if we entered a prolonged drought period, the water resources out there could be in jeopardy,” Thornton said. “And if we don’t do something to address and prepare for the potential of a prolonged drought…we’re being negligent as a state.” Linda Christie, director of community and government relations for the Tarrant Regional Water District, said that aggressive conservation measures by the Tarrant Regional Water District – including restricting lawn-watering to twice a week – have eliminated an immediate need for the construction of new projects. But she said money from the fund could be needed in the future to build new segments of an integrated pipeline system to bring more water back to the Metroplex. Failure to pass the measure, she said, “is going to be very costly for North Texas… We won’t have the ability get these state subsidies and deferrals that are so important.”

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A survey conducted by the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas at Austin in late September and early October suggests that the supporters’ message is apparently getting through to voters. Of the 800 registered voters contacted by the survey, 52 percent supported Proposition 6 compared to 19 percent who said they would vote against it. Twenty-four percent said they didn’t know or had no opinion. An additional 5 percent said they didn’t intend to vote. Much of the opposition apparently comes from tea party groups upset with the proposed withdrawal of money from the state’s rainy day fund and from some environmental groups who warn that the projects will endanger sensitive ecological sites. One opponent is conservative activist Debra Medina of Wharton, who challenged Perry for governor in the 2010 Republican primary and is now gearing up for a run at the state comptroller’s post that will be vacated by outgoing Republican incumbent Susan Combs. Speculation has surfaced in recent weeks that Medina is considering running as an independent candidate for governor but she dismissed that talk during a recent phone interview with the Fort Worth Business Press. She said she is focused on the comptroller’s race.

“There’s a lot of opposition (to Proposition 6) in the state,” Medina said. “Creating this state infrastructure bank stands to benefit investment banks, lawyers and financial advisers but it doesn’t really do anything to address the growing water needs in Texas.” Medina said that while Prop 6 supporters have a “truckload of money” to fuel their efforts, tea party groups and other conservative activists plan to rely heavily on social media and personal networking to generate opposition to the measure. “Prop 6 is a no vote for me, my friend,” said Chuck Molyneaux, a tea party activist who lives in Parker in Collin County. “It does not represent fiscal responsibility.” Two tea party-backed members of the Tarrant County legislative delegation – Reps. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) and Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) – also have signaled their intention to vote against the measure but said they didn’t plan to actively campaign against it. During the legislative debate on the proposition, the two lawmakers said the appropriations should have been funded in the state budget but not through the state’s savings account, the rainy day fund. Environmental groups appear split on the measure. Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas, has endorsed the proposition, saying he is pleased with a provision that commits up to 20 percent of the funding for conservation measures. But Save our Springs, an Austin-based environmental group, contends that the initiative doesn’t safeguard the environment and is working to defeat it.

The arguments on both sides of the issue mirror those that shadowed the proposal as it wound its way through the regular session of the 83rd Legislature before ultimately winning approval in late May. Although the need to bolster the state’s water supplies was widely supported, funding the proposal through the rainy day fund attracted strong tea party opposition. At one point, the measure appeared in danger of collapse before it was salvaged by key lawmakers. The initiative would create the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT), which would be seeded with a one-time $2 billion transfer from the rainy day fund, officially known as the Economic Stabilization Fund. Opponents of the proposed transfer have warned that the drawdown could endanger the state’s AAA bond rating, but Prop 6 supporters counter that the rainy day fund, sustained by oil and gas revenue, is expected to reach $11.8 billion by the end of the 2015 fiscal year and will still have a healthy balance after the withdrawal. Money from the fund would be available to provide low-interest loans, longer loan repayment terms and deferral of loan payments, according to an analysis of the amendment by the House Research Organization. A second fund that would be created by the initiative – the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas (SWIRFT) – would be used to manage revenue bonds issued by a restructured Texas Water Development Board to implement projects under the state water plan.

The plan, compiled by the state’s regional water organizations, calls for a combination of strategies – including conservation and new reservoirs – to guarantee that Texas will have enough water to support the state’s continuing spike in population through 2060. The estimated cost of meeting just a quarter of the state’s long-term needs is $53 billion, including $27 billion in state financial assistance. In addition to Proposition 6, voters will also decide the outcome of other measures placed on the ballot by the Legislature. Turner, a member of the House Democrats’ leadership team, sponsored the Proposition 1 initiative that would allow the spouse of a service member killed in combat to receive a homestead property tax exemption. The exemption would end if the spouse remarried. Turner told the Business Press that he hasn’t seen any signs of organized opposition and is hopeful that measure will win voter approval. “It will have a tremendous impact to the surviving spouses,” said the Tarrant County lawmaker. North Texas chambers of commerce and representatives of the Texas aerospace aerospace industry are calling for passage of Proposition 3, which would allow aerospace and aircraft companies to warehouse parts in the state for up two years without incurring a property tax penalty, subject to approval by local governments. The state’s current “freeport exemption” law allows property to remain on-site for up to six months before it is subject to inventory taxes but aerospace officials say they often need to keep big-ticket items such as aircraft engines on-site for a much longer period of time.