AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Rep. Allan Ritter has spent years trying to find the money to build the water pipelines, reservoirs and conservation systems Texas' rapidly growing population needs, and this was supposed to be the year it finally happened.
Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Speaker Joe Straus and the state's business community all threw their support behind Ritter's plan to take $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and leverage it to raise $27 billion over the next 50 years. But their support wasn't enough.
On Monday night, tea party conservatives dug in their heels against tapping the Rainy Day Fund, and Democrats made their support conditional on also using the fund for public schools.
In the middle of a fiery debate over whether water was more important than education or public safety, Democrats pointed out that under House rules the bill was not yet eligible for a vote. That killed the measure, at least in its present form.
Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said he didn't oppose creating the water fund or spending an additional $2 billion on roads, another Republican priority. But he said Democrats also want $2 billion for education too, and that's why he brought the parliamentary point of order that killed Ritter's House Bill 11.
Conservative Republicans, meanwhile, breathed a sigh of relief because they were saved a politically difficult vote to boost state spending. If they had supported Ritter, they might have mustered just enough Democratic support to pass the measure.
"This is the politics side of it, and sometimes it's the ugly the part of what we do in the Legislature," Ritter said. He resolved to find a way to introduce his bill but acknowledged a tough road ahead.
The biggest hurdle is getting the 100 votes required from the 150-member Legislature to tap the Rainy Day Fund. An estimated 35 Republicans identify with the tea party, and conservative activists at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility adamantly oppose spending the $11.8 billion fund.
Democrats hold 55 seats in the Texas House of Representatives and after killing Ritter's bill Monday night, they said they are united on insisting that the Legislature restore all of the $5.4 billion cut from public schools in 2011. That means including $2 billion for schools as part of any plan to spend the Rainy Day Fund.
"Education took the severity of the cuts last session, like no other entity, and it's up to us to say that is enough," said Rep. Yvonne Davis, the Democratic leader in the House. "We didn't want to have the politics of water versus roads versus public education. We wanted them all to be a priority."
Republicans, though, say they've already restored enough to public schools and Perry adamantly opposes using the Rainy Day Fund for ongoing expenses. As long as the 55 Democrats and the 35 tea party Republicans remain opposed, tapping the fund remains impossible.
Presumably Democrats could support Senate Joint Resolution 1 to let voters decide on three constitutional amendments to take $2 billion for the water fund, $2 billion for a new roads fund and $800 million for public schools. The bipartisan Senate plan also appropriates an additional $1.4 billion for public schools from other revenue.
Ritter, though, said House Republicans are unlikely to even consider that option.
"That is a lot broader than anybody in the House ever dreamed of, it spends $6 billion," Ritter said. "I don't think it has a snowball's chance."
Just before Monday's debate Perry met privately with Republicans urging them to support Ritter's bill, but to no avail. After the vote he said the water fund remains a top priority.
"The people of Texas expect their elected officials to address the water needs of our state, and we will do just that," Perry said.
Straus also promised to work with lawmakers. As speaker he has tremendous power over what bills get passed and will likely use that leverage to win both Republican and Democratic support for a revised water bill.
Following the worst single-year drought in Texas history, Ritter said time is running out for building the water infrastructure needed for future generations.
"I understand what they are fighting for," Ritter said of his opponents. "But the biggest mistake the Legislature could do is putting this off again. We've done that long enough."
House Bill 11 to tap the Rainy Day Fund: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=HB11
Senate Joint Resolution 1 for a referendum: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=SJR1