Legislation with $1.7 billion for flood control and mitigation projects goes to governor

Texas Tribune News

Jeremy Boutor removes personal items on an air mattress from his home in a neighborhood along Eldridge Parkway, flooded by waters released from Addicks Reservoir on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, adding to flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
Jeremy Boutor removes personal items on an air mattress from his home in a neighborhood along Eldridge Parkway, flooded by waters released from Addicks Reservoir on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, adding to flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

With the start of hurricane season looming, Texas lawmakers have sent legislation to Gov. Greg Abbott that would draw $1.7 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to help pay for flood control projects and repairs across the state.

Although a prior version of Senate Bill 7 would have appropriated more than $3 billion from the state’s savings account, that figure changed as lawmakers negotiated over budget proposals. SB 7 comes nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas with record rainfall. The legislation is part of a trio of disaster relief bills that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick identified as a priority this legislative session.

Authored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and sponsored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, the legislation establishes two funds that would provide grants and loans for flood control and mitigation projects. House Joint Resolution 4, already signed in the House and the Senate, would amend the Texas Constitution to create the Flood Infrastructure Fund – one of the funds outlined in SB 7.

The proposal created in HJR 4 will be put to Texas voters in the November 2019 election: “The constitutional amendment providing for the creation of the flood infrastructure fund to assist in the financing of drainage, flood mitigation, and flood control projects.”

A second fund, the Texas Infrastructure Resiliency Fund (TIRF) would be made up of four accounts, each with a specific purpose. One, the Federal Matching Account, would use state money to help local communities with matching funds needed for projects eligible for partial federal funding. Another, the Hurricane Harvey Account, would help bring down federal dollars for flood projects related to that particular storm.

“This legislation is critical for creating a more resilient Texas,” Phelan said in a statement Friday, calling SB 7 and HJR 4 “historic bills.” Phelan also said that Texas’ population growth means that the impact of flooding events will continue to increase statewide.

Last week, Creighton celebrated the passage of SB 7 and, like Phelan, said it would make Texas better prepared for future storms.

Nearly $3 million would be transferred into one of the TIRF accounts from an existing fund, the Floodplain Management Fund No. 330, according to SB 7’s fiscal note. Just over $3 million would also be deposited into that account each fiscal year from insurance maintenance taxes.

More than half of the funds appropriated from the state’s massive savings account would be funneled to the Texas Water Development Board to develop and fund projects under the Texas State Flood Plan, created through Senate Bill 8. That piece of legislation, authored by state Sen. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican, would set up the state’s first flood plan.

The Senate agreed to House amendments to SB 8 on Friday. Modeled in a format similar to the water development board’s State Water Plan, the state flood plan would give representatives from each of the state flood planning regions the ability to craft a plan and submit it to the board for consideration into a master plan.

As this year’s legislative session began, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner pressed state lawmakers to tap the state’s rainy day fund. A spokesman for Turner’s office said Friday the state should support local spending because “the alternative for the city of Houston would be to raise local revenues.”

In January, Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo wrote to Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen to say that local governments “have stretched their budgets to the limit,” and to petition the state to draw from the rainy day fund. In that letter, Turner and Hidalgo identified states from Florida to Colorado that have provided at least a portion of match dollars needed to participate in the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to institute hazard mitigation measures across the United States.

Today, the Senate also adopted the conference committee report on Senate Bill 6, authored by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham — the third of the disaster relief bills. SB 6 would require the Texas Division of Emergency Management to establish guides for local officials on both disaster response and recovery, as well as how to manage debris removal.