Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made a welcome suggestion recently: Legislators should consider withdrawing $1 billion from the rainy day fund to create a “water infrastructure development bank” to help local governments pay for new water projects.
Dewhurst’s suggestion, tossed out during a speech to the Dallas Regional Chamber, falls far short of the tens of billions of dollars needed to meet the water needs of a growing population over the next several decades, but legislators don’t have to pay for every project now. They just need a start.
Lawmakers talk all the time about how important water is to Texas and its economic health, but they have done very little over the years to implement or pay for water projects. The idea floated by Dewhurst might point lawmakers, scheduled to begin a new legislative session in January, toward consensus on funding efforts to increase the state’s water supplies. If it forges a path for future legislatures to follow, we’ll take it.
The state’s latest water plan, adopted last year by the Texas Water Development Board, recommends spending $53 billion over the next 50 years on reservoirs, pipelines, wells and desalination plants. The plan estimates that the state’s population will grow 82 percent by 2060 — that’s another 21 million people added to the more than 25 million here already. Failure to fund a strategy that mixes conservation efforts with new construction could cost the state jobs and lost business.
Business leaders understand the urgency as well as anyone. Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, responded to Dewhurst’s remarks by saying, “Water is essential for economic development, and right now we’re headed toward significant shortages in the future, which will harm the economic development of Texas.”
Details about how a water infrastructure development bank would work are vague at the moment, but the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Texas Senate, suggested it could become self-sustaining by requiring local governments to pay back what they take in the form of construction bonds. In other words, it would serve as a kind of state loan program.
The rainy day fund currently has about $8.1 billion. Gov. Rick Perry, Dewhurst and their fellow Republicans in the Legislature typically resist efforts to use the fund, arguing it should be reserved for emergencies.
Their position isn’t absolute, though. Perry persuaded lawmakers to use the rainy day fund in 2003 to jump-start the Texas Enterprise Fund and to do the same in 2005 to start up the Emerging Technology Fund. The Legislature pulled $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund to cover a 2011 budget deficit, but conservatives defeated Democratic efforts to use the fund during the 2011 legislative session to prevent $5.4 billion in public education cuts.
Lawmakers also are looking at possibly paying for water projects by adding fees to various water-related items such as water meters. Such fees probably will be sharply opposed by tea party conservatives.
There’s no disagreement that Texas needs to improve its water infrastructure. There will be political divides to straddle to figure out how to pay for water projects, but Dewhurst’s apparent endorsement of using the rainy day fund for water projects may have given one proposal momentum. We hope it at least signaled that legislators finally are ready to seriously address the state’s water needs.