AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Early voting is underway on whether to tap the state's rainy day fund to create a $2 billion water infrastructure fund, but while the constitutional amendment enjoys widespread support, there is vocal conservative opposition that could derail it in a low-turnout election.
Listed on the ballot as Proposition 6, the measure would allow the state to use the money to buy down the cost of bond financing for massive water development projects. The Texas Water Development Board says the state's share of developing new water resources over the next 50 years is $27 billion and Proposition 6 will supply the seed money to meet that need. Local authorities would borrow from the fund and repay it with interest, allowing the fund to be used repeatedly to lower borrowing costs.
Gov. Rick Perry, House Speaker Joe Straus, and dozens of business and environmental groups support creating the State Water Infrastructure Fund. The current drought spurred the Legislature into action after decades of failing to adequately fund water projects needed to keep up with population and business growth.
"The water crisis impacts every part of our great state, from our growing cities and industries to our farming and ranching communities," Straus said. "By casting a yes vote today for Proposition 6, Texans can help address this crisis and ensure our state has an adequate supply of water for the next 50 years."
Yet one of the most vocal conservative groups in the state — Empower Texans — oppose the measure because they feel it would "incentivize new local-government debt without providing sufficient protections." Fiscal conservatives have raised concerns about local governments piling up large amounts of bond debt and this could add to that.
Longview Rep. David Simpson, a top tea party leader in the Legislature, is urging voters to oppose Proposition 6 because he believes the money will be used to distort the bond market.
"Intervention in the market by the state will no doubt favor some at the expense of others, such as East Texans," he said in a statement. "Because East Texas is blessed with more water resources than other parts of the state, it is likely those resources will be sought after by others and this proposal jeopardizes the ability for East Texas to protect its resources."
Conservative opposition to tapping the rainy day fund led lawmakers to give voters the choice of whether to withdraw the cash. The Republican-controlled Legislature ignored Democrats and less conservative Republicans who thought the Legislature should have used its authority to spend the money rather than rely on a referendum.
The main concern is the low turnout for constitutional amendment elections. Without candidates campaigning, most people don't even know there is a vote on Nov. 5. Houston is the one exception, because of the mayoral race and a referendum to turn the Astrodome into a convention center.
In 2011, only 695,052 people cast ballots out of 12.8 million registered voters. That means a small number of activists on one side of an issue can make the difference.
Out of 10 propositions on the 2011 ballot, three failed to pass and all had fiscal implications. Statewide voters denied El Paso County permission to issue bonds for parks and recreation facilities, rejected allowing counties to issue bonds for redevelopment of blighted areas and refused to allow land set aside for water conservation to be taxed at a rate lower than the market value.
That last item dealt a serious blow to water conservation efforts and is one reason both supporters and opponents of Proposition 6 want to turnout voters. Only about 100,000 people, though, had cast early ballots at the end of last week.
If Proposition 6 fails to pass, it will put lawmakers in a difficult position during the 2015 legislative session, forced to decide whether to spend the money themselves or wait for a water crisis to develop that will give them the political cover to spend state revenues.
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Chris Tomlinson is the AP's supervisory correspondent in Austin responsible for state government and political reporting.