TEXAS POLITICS Lege: Tap rainy day fund for flood control
A package of recently approved legislation designed to help communities damaged by Hurricane Harvey pick up and prepare for the future also could be the answer for funding one of the most impactful and expensive infrastructure projects proposed for Southeast Texas.
Senate Bill 7, an omnibus bill authored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk after being unanimously approved in the Senate along with three other relief bills. SB 7 will create two new revolving accounts, one of which will hold $1.6 billion from the state’s “rainy day fund,” designed to help local governments meet their share of matching grants needed to complete flood and storm mitigation projects.
For the Sabine-Neches Navigation District, being able to access funds set aside with the Texas Water Development Board would mean it would have way to pay the local portion of the proposed $1 billion deepening project of the Sabine-Neches Waterway without a bond from local taxpayers.
Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, authored a house bill that largely was combined with Senate Bill 7 and contained the provisions for creating a grant pool for flood mitigation projects. Phelan said the deepening of the Sabine-Neches wasn’t at the forefront of his mind when he began writing the bill, but the navigation district soon became a natural partner in the process.
“It came to my understanding they would have something important to add to the discussion since they have a vital role to play in the drainage of the region,” Phelan said. “Working with the navigation district is a part of that regional approach that brings communities together to help solve problems.”
Phelan said the idea of the legislation was to end issues occurring with separate communities and local governments drafting isolated flood mitigation plans that often overlap or conflict.
While the deepening project has mostly been talked about in terms of its economic impact on Southeast Texas as more and larger ships gain access to the waterway, environmental impact studies also suggest a deeper waterway would help with drainage in the region.
The Sabine-Neches Waterway deepening project received final federal approval in 2014 as a part of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The project has continued to be funded since being approved, but the navigational district still has to wait until the final master plan is approved by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers before work can begin.
Under the provisions of Senate Bill 7, the navigation district, along with a coalition of local governments and water districts with interest in the project’s impact, would have to form a collaborative plan to present to the Texas Water Development Board for approval. The project then could be rewarded a forgivable grant or loan from the fund.
The local match for the project is 25 percent of the expected $1 billion needed to finish the dredging and other environmental work.
Whether or not the program will fulfill the district’s nearly 20-year wish, legislators hope the bill will help Texas think more proactively about how it handles flooding.
Creighton said in a statement Wednesday the bill would “set the state on a path to be more resilient and better prepared for future storms.”
“It is uncharacteristic for the Legislature to take such bold, proactive actions, and I am honored by the faith our colleagues put in me and Rep. Phelan to get this done,” he said. “...Every stakeholder, local leader and Texas family who was impacted by the storm and provided input shares in this success.”
The four Senate bills and Phelan’s House Bill 13 all enjoyed bipartisan support from legislators on both sides of the aisle. House Bill 13 passed unanimously with an original price tag of $2.6 billion, what Phelan called a “robust ask from the ‘rainy day fund.’”
“Everyone supported the bill because everyone floods,” Phelan said. “Everyone has seen the effects of what flooding can do to their districts and communities. This was a great opportunity to use the destruction of Harvey and that storm to remind Texas we need to do more about flooding.”
Jasper Scherer and Mike Morris helped contribute to this report.