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June 11th, 2013:

Opposition gearing up for the water fund amendment

The legislation to create a state water infrastructure fund, and the joint resolution that authorized tapping the Rainy Day Fund for up to $2 billion to seed it, had a rocky road in the legislature and wasn’t completed until the last weekend of the regular session. Now the task is to pass the constitutional amendment that the joint resolution enabled on the ballot, and that’s no sure thing, either.

If ratified in the Nov. 5 election, the proposed constitutional amendment would create a state water development bank that supporters say is vital to help Texas avert a worsening water shortage over the next half-century.

The unfolding campaign appears almost certain to match the contours of the legislative debate, balancing the need to keep Texas economically vibrant with a robust water supply against Tea Party-fueled opposition over spending rainy-day money on the multibillion-dollar program.

Nine other amendments are heading to the state’s 13 million-plus voters, but Senate Joint Resolution 1 is easily the farthest-reaching. Senate Natural Resources Chairman Troy Fraser, a chief proponent, said he hopes to muster “an army of people” into the campaign to push the measure to victory.

The effort is expected to include much of the state’s political leadership, including Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

H204Texas, a coalition that includes chambers of commerce, energy companies, water suppliers and other interests, has already started mapping out a political-style campaign that includes fundraising, media buys, op-ed pieces and elaborate use of social media.

“We’re already in full force,” said Heather Harward, the coalition’s executive director.

[…]

But opposition is also taking shape as an array of conservative groups — including Tea Party and citizens lobby organizations — work their formidable email networks to point up what they say are a number of reasons why the initiative should be defeated.

Recycling a major element from the legislative debate, opponents have begun to denounce the proposed use of $2 billion in state rainy-day funds, which lawmakers approved in a separate appropriations bill to capitalize the proposed bank.

Opponents say that putting the $2 billion into a constitutionally dedicated fund enables supporters to avoid having the money count against a state spending cap, which conservatives both in and out of the Legislature have vowed to protect vigorously.

“We’re going to have to oppose it,” said JoAnn Fleming of Tyler, executive director of Grassroots America, which she said networks with more than 300 Tea Party and liberty organizations.

Fleming said members of her organization and related groups plan to work through summer and fall in a “good old-fashioned grassroots effort” to drum up votes against the initiative. “We’ve been successful with that in the past,” she said.

One influential conservative group, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, came out against the proposal during the just-ended regular legislative session, but group President Michael Quinn Sullivan said in an email that “it’s premature to speculate on what we may or may not be doing in the fall on constitutional amendments.”

“A great many conservative groups opposed SJR1 in the legislature,” said Sullivan, who is president of Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. “We know a lot of folks are going to be talking about it in the fall. If or when we decide to engage in that issue, we’ll engage.”

Chuck Molyneaux of McKinney, 73, a retired software developer who heads the North Texas Citizens Lobby, said his organization is reaching out to its allies in the Tea Party community to oppose the measure and the proposed use of rainy-day funds.

“We’re going to do our best to keep it from being passed,” he said. “This one just reeks of smoke and mirrors.”

I’ll save the debate about the merits of the amendment for another day. I just want to point out that historically speaking, the vast majority of amendments that get put on the ballot do get passed. However, three of the five that were defeated in the past decade went down in 2011. Here’s a brief recap of how this voting has gone:

2011 – 7/10 passed
2009 – 11/11 passed
2007 – 16/16 passed
2005 – 7/9 passed
2003 – 22/22 passed

There are two interesting things about the 2011 election. One is that the referenda that failed were not exactly high profile or had any apparent opposition going into the election. Here’s the ballot statement of the five amendments in 2011 and 2005 that were rejected, first from 2011:

Prop 4 Permit county to issue bonds for development, 40.26 to 59.73
Prop 7 Permit El Paso County to create reclamation districts, 48.29 to 51.50
Prop 8 Appraisal for ad valorem tax of land devoted to water stewardship, 47.00 to 52.99

And from 2005:

Prop. 5 Commercial loan interest rates defined by Legislature, 43.41 to 56.48
Prop. 9 Six-Year term for regional mobility authority, 46.67 to 53.32

Unlike 2005, the year of the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage amendment, there wasn’t anything particularly high profile in 2011, though Prop 4 was opposed by various anti-toll road groups. I have no memory of the defeated issues from 2005. The other thing about the 2011 election was that it had the lowest turnout of any referendum on this list:

2011 Turnout – 690,052
2009 Turnout – 1,058,986
2007 Turnout – 1,096,410
2005 Turnout – 2,260,695
2003 Turnout – 1,470,443

That might have had something to do with it, though recall that the 2003 election, which included the medical malpractice tort “reform” referendum was held in September (back when there was still a uniform election date in September) for the deliberate purpose of keeping turnout low, which supporters of tort “reform” assumed would be better for their cause. They didn’t want to be on the same ballot as the high-turnout Houston Mayoral election that year. It’s not clear to me whether turnout will be a factor one way or the other for SJR1, but on the whole the lower the turnout the greater the influence of the more motivated voters, and I’d put my money on the antis being more motivated at this time. So keep an eye on that. EoW has more.

Perry signs HB5, adds transportation to the special session

There had been some buzz about a possible veto, but in the end this was to be expected.

When Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 5 on Monday, he ended weeks of speculation that he might veto the high-profile education legislation because of concerns that it would weaken high school graduation standards.

The bill, by House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, drops the number of state standardized tests high school students must take to graduate and changes the courses needed to earn a diploma. It passed both chambers unanimously, with many lawmakers hailing the bill as one of the session’s most important, after months of lengthy committee hearings and contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations.

As Perry signed HB 5 with Aycock and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, by his side, the governor said the measure reflected an “appropriate balance between a need for rigorous academics and flexibility” and had “come a long way” to address the concerns of its critics, which include the Texas Association of Business and the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“Texas refuses to dilute our academic standards in any way because they are working,” he said, citing the state’s rising graduation rates and test scores.

Actually, STAAR scores were flat, and high schoolers continued to have trouble with the end of course exams. And there were definitely some people who thought that HB5 did dilute standards, including TEA Commissioner Michael Williams and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes. Be that as it may, HB5 did do a number of good things, and we’ll just have to see what happens with the graduation requirements. As I’ve said before, I fully expect this matter to be revisited by the Lege again and again. Texas Politics has more.

Meanwhile, the scope of the special session has been expanded, though thankfully not for anything bad.

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday added transportation funding to the agenda of the special session.

In his directive, Perry asked the Legislature to consider the “funding of transportation infrastructure projects” during the 30-day session, which began late last month.

“Texas’ growing economy and population demand that we take action to address the growing pressure on the transportation network across the state,” Perry said in a statement. “As we enjoy the benefits of a booming economy, we have to build and maintain the roads to ensure we sustain both our economic success and our quality of life.”

Not clear when the Lege will get around to this, since the House stands adjourned till Monday the 17th. Also not clear why Perry violated his previous dictum about waiting till redistricting was done before doing anything else. But that’s Rick Perry for you.

Even before Perry added transportation to the call, lawmakers had been filing road funding bills with the hope that he would. For his part, Perry has been advocating for 100-year bonds to finance transportation infrastructure, arguing the state should take advantage of historically low interest rates.

But a large contingent of Republicans remains adamantly opposed to TxDOT assuming any more debt. Some lawmakers want to tap the Rainy Day Fund for transportation funds, but conservatives have already objected to using the account for water projects and ending accounting tricks so it’s unclear if that will re-emerge during the special session.

Perry himself added to the problem during the regular session when he shot down the idea of even a modest increase in the vehicle registration fee as a way to help fund transportation. Perry also said he’d only add items that had consensus and thus would be easy enough to pass, and it’s not clear that this applies to transportation. But other than that, it’s a great idea. I’ll be happy if the Lege can actually get something done on this, but I’m not counting on it.

Patrick involved in another Senate squabble

Must be something in the water.

In this corner...

A powerful Republican urged the Senate last week to strip a plum committee chairmanship from a GOP colleague who voted against the state budget, six senators said Friday.

Chief Senate budget writer Sen. Tommy Williams polled colleagues on whether they would support removing Sen. Dan Patrick as head of the Education Committee, though Williams appears to have since suspended the effort, the lawmakers said.

It’s unclear if Williams has permanently abandoned his push and if Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst condoned it, said the senators, both Republicans and Democrats.

Through a spokesman, Dewhurst, a Republican, denied late Friday that he instigated or supported the proposed ouster of Patrick.

“The lieutenant governor’s not involved in this, and he didn’t encourage it,” said Travis Considine, Dewhurst’s communications director.

Patrick said Dewhurst must have blessed Williams’ actions, at least implicitly.

“I’m much more worried about the people being unhappy with the votes I cast than a lieutenant governor,” Patrick said.

He and Dewhurst, both Houston Republicans, may collide in the party’s primary for lieutenant governor next year – after a political alliance that took just 10 months to unravel.

[…]

…And in this corner

Williams, R-The Woodlands, has had icy relations with Patrick since the former radio talk-show host arrived in the Senate in 2007.

This year, Patrick sat on Williams’ Finance Committee. After voting for the budget at the committee and during its first trip through the full Senate, Patrick was among four conservative Republicans who opposed the final product of a House-Senate conference committee on May 25.

“They lost me on a couple of issues,” he explained.

Patrick cited a loss of funding for some of his favored education items and what he said was too profligate an approach with rainy-day dollars and with spending generally, especially when highway funding wasn’t boosted much.

Williams championed more spending on roads, only to be thwarted by conservative Republicans who wouldn’t support increasing vehicle registration fees. He was highly upset with Patrick’s vote, one senator said, adding that Williams met individually May 26 with all four senators who voted against the budget, to convey his displeasure.

See here for more on this latest outbreak of Republican-on-Republican violence. You may recall that just last year, Patrick had a high profile slap fight with Sen. John Carona. Looks like he gets to cross another name off his Christmas card list

Astrodome-palooza

In case you aren’t completely full of my opining on the Astrodome and its possible fate, I was the author of a op-ed in the Sunday Chron on the subject. It’s kind of the Reader’s Digest version of the things I’ve been saying here, so if you don’t click over you won’t miss anything new to you. I did put a copy of it beneath the fold, since I like to keep track of my own writing.

Elsewhere on those same op-ed pages, former County Judge and State Sen. Jon Lindsay offers his critique of the private proposals that have been floated.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Now we have an opportunity to develop the premier convention city in the world. Just look at what we could create. The combination of the Metro rail service connecting the George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green downtown to the Reliant and Dome complex would be awesome for really big events like a Super Bowl. There are other events that would benefit, like the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) that requires event facilities combined with entertainment areas. I’m sure the Convention and Visitors Bureau can name others.

[…]

I am critical of the proposal to strip the building to its structural steel and leaving it exposed. Where is the logic in having a steel skeleton out there that would require a full-time painting crew working to stop the rust? That tension ring must be protected or we will have a nature-caused implosion. A very large sculpture is not the answer, either.

There are not many stadiums that have better parking than we already have at Reliant. It can and should be improved, however. A parking garage would pay its own way, and if not, some of the event sponsors should contribute. There should be more effort to encourage parking downtown and use public transportation to get to the games and some other events like the rodeo. It’s much easier to get out of downtown after a game than the Reliant parking lot.

The proposal to develop exhibition space might make some sense if done on a grand scale. By that, I mean get some of the big players involved, like our major oil companies. Develop a big oil field in the Dome featuring some of the early oil rigs and everything big in the industry. Why can’t we have a continuing OTC featuring some of the past? Along with that, put in some educational facilities and meeting rooms. The industry could see that as a way to encourage youth to want a career in oil and gas.

He also mentions that if Texas ever does legalize more gambling, the Dome would be a “premier location” for it. The Dome as casino is the granddaddy of all What To Do With The Dome proposals, though as you can see Lindsay’s successor as County Judge didn’t think much of the idea back then.

Finally, Chron sports columnist Randy Harvey calls on Commissioners Court to think futuristically.

I’m open to most ideas, except for demolishing the Astrodome and replacing it with another parking lot. Even at the bargain price of $29 million estimated by the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is half as much as some say that would cost.

There is no doubt the building could be redeveloped as a shopping mall, a theme park, an apartment complex or a movie studio. I’m not so sure about an indoor ski resort.

It would be better if whatever it becomes commemorated the Astrodome.

Ryan Slattery, a University of Houston graduate student, wrote in his masters thesis that the steel frame and dome should remain, covering a park. The New York Times suggested it could become Houston’s Eiffel Tower.

That’s a difficult image to resist.

But I also would ask commissioners court to consider something more futuristic, as futuristic as the Astrodome was in 1965, as futuristic as NASA was by putting a man on the moon in 1969 and as futuristic as Houston still should want to be seen by the world.

Maybe we could create a museum, not of the past but of the future, more like an exploratorium, with interactive exhibits speculating on life on Earth or other planets in decades and centuries to come.

Ideas are the easy part. It’s the execution that’s tricky. If it were easy to do one of these things, we’d have done it by now.

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