Texans are set to decide whether to ratify a constitutional amendment creating a $2 billion water infrastructure fund, billed as the answer to a growing and drought-vulnerable state. It'll finance new dams, reservoirs, desalinization plants and the development of new groundwater supplies.
As we saw in many parts of the state, in towns both large and small, a water crisis is developing. And with a drought that could ebb next year or persist through the decade, it may not be over anytime soon. So, the answer is to build our way out of it, much like the state plans to do to address a coming electricity shortfall. Conservation would probably be cheaper, but then again conservation doesn't create plum construction projects. Yet the risks of doing nothing at all may indeed be too high.
Still, it's never a bad idea first to take a look at who may stand to benefit from taxpayer-financed water projects.
The three members of the full-time board tasked with making distributions from the fund aren't members of the disbanded Texas Water Development Board or water-policy nerds who breathe this stuff. They're the governor's acolytes, appointed by Rick Perry himself. One is the owner of a natural gas company and chair of the Texas Lottery Commission. Another appointee is the director of governmental appointments from Perry's own office. And the last is a commissioner appointed by Perry to the state environmental regulatory agency. The deck is stacked with buddies.
There's a lot of big-business money flowing into the effort to push Proposition 6. Texans for Public Justice, the nonprofit corruption watchdog, put together a handy list of the biggest contributors to the $2.1 million Texas Water PAC, an organization attempting to sell voters on the infrastructure fund.
Among its biggest benefactors is the Associated General Contractors of Texas, Dow Chemical, Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings (Texas' biggest unregulated power generator), Texas Oil and Gas Association, and Conoco Phillips. Each has a vested financial interest in the infrastructure projects themselves, or in access to cheap, plentiful water with as few conservation strings attached as possible.
With Perry appointees holding the purse strings, there is reason to worry that the otherwise laudable intent of the fund will get twisted to crony-ish ends. One need not reach back too far into history to find other goal-oriented piles of money that in hindsight look more like taxpayer-fueled slush funds to reward political supporters. Think of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
The very companies bankrolling Texas Water PAC have already collectively given Perry $6.8 million since the 2010 election cycle, according to TPJ. Texas needs more water. There's no doubt about that. But what's to stop the familiar CPRIT pattern from recapitulating itself once again?