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Prop. 6: Rainy Day Flows Downhill

State Water Implementation Fund wins in landslide

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 8, 2013

House Speaker Joe Straus speaks at the Prop. 6 victory party.
House Speaker Joe Straus speaks at the Prop. 6 victory party.
Photo by Jana Birchum

Who says Texans won't spend money on infrastructure? On Tuesday night, they voted 3-1 to spend $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund on large-scale water construction, repair, and conservation projects around the state. Proposition 6 establishes the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT): Effectively a dedicated bank for water utilities, it will use $2 billion in seed money from the Rainy Day Fund to help finance $53 billion in water projects over the next 50 years – reducing the cost of loans for smaller local utilities, and buying down the interest rates on $6 billion in bonds approved by voters in 2011.

At Tuesday night's Water Texas PAC victory party at the Rattle Inn, House Speaker Joe Straus noted that "these constitutional amendments that have to do with water aren't always easy to pass, and when they do pass, it's not always by a large margin." He praised the collaborative work of "stakeholders that don't always agree with each other," such as the fossil fuel energy industry and environmental groups. (Case in point: die-hard conservative Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, seeking out Environment Texas director Luke Metzger to shake his hand warmly and thank him for his efforts.) There had been complaints that the main donors to the PAC were energy and oil firms – including major Republican donors – and that the enterprise will be a slush fund for the construction and pipeline industry. However, the PAC raised only $2.1 million – a drop in the bucket for a statewide election – and before e-day some supporters quietly voiced frustrations that Straus wasn't doing more to promote the cause.

It was a bad night for the "Nix Prop 6" campaign, especially locally. Travis County had been ground zero for its push against the investment plan, with Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch, Independent Texans head Linda Curtis, and eco-campaigner Paul Robbins* all opposing. Still, 73.8% of Travis County voters endorsed the proposition – slightly higher than the statewide 73.4%. In defeat, Curtis told supporters, "Get some rest and get ready for continued escalation of the Texas Water Wars."

One flash point will likely be the controversial planned Marvin Nichols Reservoir. Part of the Texas Water Plan, it would irrigate Dallas-Fort Worth from 170 miles away in the Sulphur River Basin. It's opposed by many groups that supported Prop. 6, including the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Chapter Water Resources Chair Ken Kramer declared that "now the real work begins," as environmentalists push to ensure that such environmentally damaging projects are put on the back burner – or extinguished completely.

Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger said his group will press legislators to prioritize fixing the state's leaky pipes – a massive source of wasted water – as low-hanging fruit that could help cut demand. As for "big supply-side projects like Marvin Nichols, we hope they void those projects and set up some rules so they are at least considering the environmental impact." Prop. 6 sets targets that 20% of all loans go to conservation and reuse projects, and another 10% to rural and agricultural conservation, and Kramer called those numbers "a floor, not a ceiling."

Lawmakers may also take heart that, even after years of GOP rhetoric that the Rainy Day Fund should be inviolate, voters were prepared to spend it down for the common good. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has said that Prop. 6's passage could loosen those purse strings in the future. That will be tested soon enough: Next year, voters will pass judgment on House Joint Resolution 1, a transportation funding proposal shifting money away from the state's multibillion dollar reserve and into road construction.

*Editor's note: Paul Robbins wishes to make it clear that while he did publicly oppose Prop. 6, he was not part of any organized campaign against it.

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