Posted: Mar 11, 2013 4:00 PM
Updated: Mar 11, 2013 4:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) A widely supported $2 billion proposal to jumpstart water projects in Texas drew fresh scrutiny Monday from lawmakers wanting assurance that another lucrative state fund flush with taxpayer dollars wouldn't fall prey to allegations of corruption or political patronage.
The plan to tap the Rainy Day Fund to boost water resources following a historic Texas drought is backed by majority Republicans and Democrats alike. But the details and the mere concept of using the state's emergency piggyback has renewed debates over other priorities and invited concerns of influence.
Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire reminded a subcommittee of the state's troubled $3 billion cancer-fighting agency while asking what safeguards will protect a $2 billion pot of money from being spent improperly.
Republican Sen. Troy Fraser, who is carrying the water bill in the Senate, said those issues are still being ironed out.
"It's a large sum of money," Whitmire said. "How do we put the checks and balances the safeguards, Troy, so that we don't see the abuses that we witnessed with the cancer fund?"
Public corruption prosecutors late last year began investigating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and the agency remains under a spending moratorium. Lawmakers have also so far yet to put new money on the table for Gov. Rick Perry's Emerging Technology Fund, which has faced questions over accountability and transparency.
The Texas Water Development Board is currently overseen by part-time, six-person water board. Frustrations with how quickly the board operates and its reluctance to prioritize projects in the state's 50-year water plan led Fraser to make a substantial overhaul of the board's structure.
Among the ideas are installing a full-time panel of three members. Fraser said an advisory committee not appointed through the governor's office is another plan on the table.
HUNDREDS LOBBY FOR GAY RIGHTS AT TEXAS CAPITOL
Hundreds of protesters demonstrated at the Texas Capitol on Monday, demanding equality for lesbians, gays and the transgendered, including the right to marry.
Equality Texas, a civil rights group, organized people of all sexual orientations and gender identities for a day of lobbying to support civil rights bills introduced by Democratic lawmakers. Along with calling for gay marriage rights, they backed measures that would place the names of both gay parents on birth certificates and make discrimination by employers and insurance companies illegal.
The bills stand little chance in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Gov. Rick Perry adamantly opposes gay marriage and has likened homosexuality to alcoholism.
Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, told the crowd the fight for equal rights is tough but necessary. She is the only current Texas lawmaker who does not identify as heterosexual. She describes herself as pansexual, a term for people who are attracted to different gender identities, male or female.
"I didn't realize the amount of backlash it would cause, all over the state and all over the country," she told the crowd. "But it was people like you today who gave me the courage to be my authentic self and to start to change this place, because this place should no longer, not be open and not be inclusive."
Chuck Smith, the executive director of Equality Texas, praised the lawmakers who introduced the bills and said he was optimistic that the group would eventually get them passed by meeting with lawmakers in person.
"They just need to hear from enough of us to give them the strength to do the right thing for the people of Texas," he said.
Christian conservative groups hold huge sway in the Legislature, particularly among rural and suburban Republicans. These groups oppose legal protections for individuals based on sexual orientation. Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2005.
GARCIA SWORN IN TO SENATE SEAT
The Texas Senate has a new member, Democrat Sylvia Garcia of Houston.
Garcia was sworn in to office Monday after winning a special election March 2 to replace the late Sen. Mario Gallegos.
Garcia is a former Harris County commissioner, social worker, attorney and judge. She defeated state Rep. Carol Alvarado to become the seventh female member of the state Senate.
Garcia taking office now gives Democrats 12 seats in the 31-member Senate, a key voting bloc in the Republican-majority chamber. Her first vote was to join the other Senators in unanimous approval of a list of Gov. Rick Perry's appointments.
Gallegos, a Democrat, died of liver disease in October. It was too late to remove his name from the November ballot, and he was posthumously re-elected.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"I have tunnel vision." Republican Sen. Troy Fraser, sidestepping questions over whether the Rainy Day Fund should be used to restore education cuts as lawmakers consider taking $2 billion for water under his bill.