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Assurances sought with potential $2B water fund

Paul j. Weber, Associated Press

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.

"You're perfectly on the right track of what we're trying to move forward," Fraser told a Senate Finance subcommittee.

The proposed $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund would create a revolving loan program so communities can begin working on projects outlined in the state water plan, which outlines more than 560 projects. The total estimated cost is $53 billion.

Water board chairman Billy Bradford has defended the performance of the agency.

A historic drought caused an unprecedented $7.6 billion in agricultural losses in 2011 and made water a priority for the Legislature. The drought resulted in severe water restrictions statewide, significantly depleted crucial reservoirs and dried out rivers. While conditions have eased, the state still hasn't fully recovered.


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