Texans may approve billions for energy, water, parks and broadband on Nov. 7

Texans may approve billions for energy, water, parks and broadband on Nov. 7
8 months 2 weeks 4 days ago Tuesday, October 31 2023 Oct 31, 2023 October 31, 2023 4:39 PM October 31, 2023 in Election Coverage
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
Pipes lie in a trench inside the Regency Apartment complex in Austin on Feb. 24, 2021. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

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Texans across the state will have the chance Tuesday to approve major spending for new power plants, expansion of broadband access, new state parks and water infrastructure.

In total, more than $13 billion in state spending is at stake as voters consider a series of constitutional amendments addressing infrastructure. The proposals are on the ballot after legislators approved various measures for allocating funding from a $33 billion budget surplus the state had at the start of the legislative session. That, supporters say, offers voters a rare chance to sign off on a major boost to the state’s economic viability.

“Those are permanent infrastructure opportunities that we’ll never see in my lifetime again,” said Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who led the effort to invest in water infrastructure.

When big disasters from Hurricane Harvey to Winter Storm Uri hit, the infrastructure of Texas can take a beating. Boil water notices and warnings about the power grid being strained are common occurrences. And in many parts of rural Texas, lack of broadband internet makes it hard to get information and access resources.

This year’s record budget surplus allowed the Texas Legislature to address some of those needs. But lawmakers are constitutionally required to adhere to spending caps built into the budget. The infrastructure spending is going to the voters because one way around the caps is to allocate new spending through voter-approved constitutional amendments. For each proposition that passes, voters will be enshrining new funds into the state constitution for energy, water, internet and parks:

  • Proposition 6 would create the Texas Water Fund with $1 billion. A quarter of that money will go toward finding new water supplies through desalination or importing water from other states. The rest will go to repairing water infrastructure through existing programs managed by the Water Development Board.
  • Proposition 7 creates the Texas Energy Fund, which is meant to address problems on the state grid by offering low-interest loans for the development of new power plants. $5 billion will be set aside for 3% interest loans for constructing new power generation above 100 megawatts and fully dispatchable — meaning the new power plants can power 20,000 homes or more, can provide power to the grid continuously and are not dependent on the weather. Although energy storage is also dispatchable, battery technology is restricted from the loans. Power plants that come online by June 2029 are eligible for bonus payments. In addition to the initial $5 billion, money is also set to be allocated for repairing existing power plants, fortifying the grid around hospitals and other critical facilities and for upgrades to grid infrastructure outside the main grid operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
  • Proposition 8 allocates $1.5 billion to expand broadband internet service into swaths of rural Texas that currently lack access. There are about 7 million Texans who do not have broadband internet at home, hindering their ability to access online education, job applications and finding basic resources like healthcare and government services.
  • Proposition 14 puts $1 billion into acquiring land and creating new state parks. Texas currently ranks 35th in the nation for parkland per capita, according to a report by Environment Texas, a group that advocated for the proposition. The group’s Executive Director Luke Metzger told The Texas Tribune that passage of Proposition 14 could create dozens of new state parks and alleviate the long lines and waitlists for existing parks.

At about $10 billion in total, the investments in energy are the most expensive and divisive.

“Prop 7 will bolster our electricity infrastructure, guaranteeing a more reliable energy supply whenever Texans need it,” Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter. Schwertner was the leader behind Senate Bill 2627 to fund new power plants, which Proposition 7 would enact.

The energy funding is clearly the most controversial of the infrastructure proposals on the ballot, with some skeptics saying there are better ways to improve the grid, and environmentalists saying Proposition 7 overly promotes the continued use of fossil fuels. Natural gas makes up the largest share of energy types on the grid. To keep up with growing electricity demand and avoid emergency grid conditions, advocates for the proposition say more natural gas plants are necessary to ensure the lights stay on. Groups such as the Texas Oil and Gas Association and Texas Association of Manufacturers have lined up in support, saying by increasing energy supply, the funds will help keep consumer prices down.

In opposition, consumer advocates say far from guaranteeing any improvement to the grid, the proposition is a giveaway to natural gas producers with little net benefit to the grid. Sandie Haverlah, president of the Texas Consumer Association, said “taxpayer dollars could be used for something other than this” that would be “more beneficial to our pocket books.”

Instead of simply building more power plants, Haverlah suggested Texas invest in energy efficiency upgrades and programs that incentivize regular households to reduce energy consumption when demand on the grid is high.

ERCOT currently has those incentives for large energy users such as cryptocurrency miners, some of whom get paid to reduce their electrical usage when grid conditions become tight. Expanding this to households and small businesses would allow more Texans to earn money back for acts such as turning down their heat in the winter when electricity conservation is needed to keep the grid stable.

Environmental groups also oppose Proposition 7. Metzger said it's a “false narrative” that gas is reliable, saying gas plant failures were partly to blame for the power failures during Winter Storm Uri. Because they are weather-dependent, wind and solar power would not qualify for the funds.

Investing in more fossil fuel generation, Metzger said, “is going to lead to additional emissions that will cause more pollution and exacerbate the climate crisis.”

The other propositions on the ballot have generated less controversy.

Although he sees Proposition 7 as making things worse for the climate, Metzger is in favor of Proposition 14 in part because he said more state park land offers some natural defense against extreme weather events like floods, and state parks also served as temporary shelter for evacuees during Hurricane Harvey.

Harvey and Winter Storm Uri also helped expose the problems with water systems around the state. Power outages caused by the two storms helped bring about more boil water notices than any other event in the past decade according to data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. When power goes out, the pressure in water systems drops which can more easily allow pollution to seep in through cracks in pipes.

“Most people assume if water comes out of the tap, everything’s fine,” Perry said. But in addition to drought that has strained water supplies, Texas also has aging water infrastructure that makes boil water notices more prevalent and causes the state to lose some of the water it already has because of leaky pipes.

Texas loses nearly 572,000 acre-feet of water each year from leaky pipes, which is more than the annual water usage of Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Laredo and Lubbock combined, according to a report from the Texas Living Waters Project.

Water and broadband needs are especially prevalent in rural Texas. State Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, authored the legislation to expand access to broadband internet. Proposition 8 would “provide resources to help close our digital divide” between cities and rural Texas, Ashby said.

Ashby represents six counties in East Texas where lack of broadband access is more common than the rest of the state. Ashby said lack of internet can make it nearly impossible to apply for jobs online or take online classes, and is a significant detriment to economic prosperity and quality of life in his district. Proposition 8 would also help improve emergency services, he said.

In addition to the $1.5 billion for broadband expansion on the ballot, the Biden administration announced in June that Texas will receive $3.3 billion in federal funds to increase broadband access across the state.

“These are critical investments that we are making in the future of Texas,” Ashby said.

Disclosure: Texas Living Waters Project has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/10/31/texas-infrastructure-constitutional-amendments/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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