After hours of fractious debate pitting Democrats against Republicans, and Republicans against each other, a major water infrastructure proposal was killed by a procedural error on the floor of the Texas House on Monday.
The measure, which calls for transferring $2 billion from the so-called rainy day fund to help build reservoir and pipeline projects around the state, found itself dead, at least for now, after Democrats called a point of order.
The rule violation sprang up during contentious debate on the measure, which had become a chip in a game over the larger priorities of the House.
Republican leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, back the plan to tap the rainy day fund for water projects, saying water infrastructure is crucial to maintain Texas’s economic competitiveness.
The state water plan warns that unless Texas spends billions for water projects over the next half-century, water shortages and drought could cost a million jobs.
Democrats, however, want to make sure public education is not shortchanged while water infrastructure is funded, and conservative, largely freshmen Republican lawmakers want to leave the rainy day fund untouched.
In March, House members overwhelmingly approved another piece of legislation creating a revolving fund to help local governments finance water projects.
But getting the money to start that program from the rainy day fund requires at least 100 ayes among the 150 House members.
To persuade more conservative Republicans to come aboard, State Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, presented a back-up plan to fund the water program, and planted the seed for the procedural error that scuttled the bill.
While alienating Democrats, Creighton’s amendment placated conservative freshmen who were hellbent on leaving the rainy day fund untouched.
Creighton presented an insurance policy that would fund the water plan even if the House failed to clear the higher hurdle — a vote of two-thirds of the chamber — to pay for the plan with money in the rainy day fund.
Creighton’s amendment instead required votes from a simple majority of the House to pay for the water plan with general revenue dollars.
“We need this amendment as a backstop,” Creighton said from the House floor.
The amendment led to a back-and-forth debate — before the eventual point of order.
Democrats fought Creighton, saying his plan would require deeper cuts to state programs to pay for the plan.
State Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, said Creighton’s amendment would lead to slashes to public education, higher education, nursing homes and “programs for crippled children.”
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said from the chamber’s back microphone that Creighton’s amendment would negatively affect state police pay raises and he wanted him to admit it.
“I just want the state troopers to understand what you’re doing,” Turner said.
Creighton responded by saying that specific budget cuts — which would occur across the board — are yet to be decided.
Turner later said: “I can’t support anything when water wins and school children lose.”
Then came the point of order. Buried in the House rulebook, an obscure rule limits some appropriations effortsbefore the 118th day of the legislative session. Monday was the 112th.
“My understanding is (the measure is) doorknob-dead,” said state Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, the bill’s author.
Still, it could come back this session in some other form, he and some Democrats said.
The breakdown in comity on the water measure was a significant change from the congenial atmosphere that’s presided over the House for much of the session.
Democrats had coalesced around an issue — education spending — that they are willing to fight for, said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.
“We will fight like no one else,” he said.
Democrats have said they would support rainy day fund money for water infrastructure — as long as it also goes for education and roads.
State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who has played a key role on water matters, said if the House doesn’t come to agreement, a special session could be called.
Senators last week sidestepped a similarly vigorous debate by unanimously passing a resolution calling for voters to consider constitutional amendments transferring $2 billion from the fund to the water infrastructure loan program, as well as money for education and transportation.
House lawmakers late Monday said they remain unwilling to go that route.