H.B. 1540 passed in the Texas House on Friday, April 28, 2023. The bill concerns recommendations from the Sunset Advisory Commission affecting the board of the SJRA.
However, Representative Will Metcalf from Conroe offered a last-minute amendment from the House floor that would effectively fire Jace Houston, the SJRA’s general manager, who reports to the board. The amendment has the potential to upset the delicate balance between upstream and downstream interests mandated by the Governor after Harvey.
The senate version of the bill does not include Metcalf’s amendment. So, this fight isn’t over yet.
Let me cover the bill, the amendment, and implications in that order.
Key Provisions of H.B. 1540
The House analysis summarizes key provisions of H.B. 1540. It revises provisions governing SJRA. It implements – across-the-board – all Sunset Advisory Commission policy recommendations relating to the following:
- Gubernatorial designation of the presiding officer of SJRA’s board of directors;
- Specific grounds for removal of a board member;
- Board member training;
- Separation of the board’s policy-making responsibilities and the staff’s management responsibilities;
- Maintenance of complaint information; and
- Public testimony at board meetings.
The bill also provides for the transition to the new training requirements for current board members. Significantly, it also adds an additional member to SJRA’s board of directors, decreases the length of a member’s term from six years to four years, and provides for the transition to this new membership and term length.
H.B. 1540 requires SJRA’s board of directors to develop and implement a comprehensive policy that provides a structure for public engagement in advance of major actions and projects. The policy must include a clear and detailed description of how SJRA will seek to actively engage stakeholders, including the possible use of the following:
- Advisory committees;
- Community panels;
- Town hall meetings;
- Other strategies on a recurring basis.
After the bill was voted out of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Metcalf offered an amendment on the House floor that surprised Committee Chair Tracy King.
The terse amendment requires that the board appoint a new SJRA General Manager within 30 days who hasn’t been employed by the SJRA as general manager within the last six months. It’s a dagger in Jace Houston’s back.
Chairman King spoke against the amendment, but in the end voted for the bill. King stated that the amendment tried to usurp the Governor’s authority. He pointed out that the Governor appoints the board and that the board hires the general manager. The legislature should not get in the middle of that, he said.
Why Try to Fire Houston?
During Metcalf’s testimony, he complained bitterly about SJRA’s:
- Water rates
- Groundwater reduction plan
- Water treatment plant
- Insistence that the City of Conroe uphold its SJRA contract
- Seasonal-lowering policy of Lake Conroe that protects downstream residents
- Battles with the Lonestar Groundwater Conservation District over subsidence.
As SJRA General Manager, Jace Houston has played a prominent role in all these controversies.
Let’s Go to the Videotape!
If you want to watch how this debate unfolded, here’s a link to the Texas House proceedings on H.B. 1540 and Metcalf’s amendment.
- Discussion starts around 2:27:15.
- Rep. Metcalf introduces his amendment at 2:28:20.
- Chairman King raises a point of order against the amendment at 2:29:10. He says the amendment is not germane to the subject of the bill. Then there’s a long break in the action while they confer on the point of order.
- At 2:41:10, discussion resumes. King has withdrawn his point of order and rises to speak in opposition to the amendment. Metcalf follows him. Then they hold a vote. The bill passes with the amendment.
- At 2:47:50, discussion moves to the next bill.
Amended Bill Overwhelmingly Passes, But…
The House bill passed with 145 Yeas, 2 Nays, and 1 Present but not voting. However…
Four days earlier, on 4/24/23, the Senate passed S.B. 2586, an identical companion bill (minus the Metcalf amendment). It’s now in King’s House Natural Resources Committee.
That means the bill could go to a conference committee to iron out the difference and find a compromise. Then the House, Senate or both will have to vote on it again. Exactly one month remains in this session.
In the meantime, you can bet heavy-duty politicking will happen in Austin.
Does the Senate have the appetite to engage in a local water war this late in session?
Will Senator Brandon Creighton whose district now includes Lake Conroe intervene?
Will Jace Houston fight to stay? Or will he throw in the towel?
Is Metcalf trying to scare the SJRA into concessions?
Will the Governor weigh in? Stay tuned.
The San Jacinto river basin encompasses more than 5,000 square miles and 6.4 million people in 11 counties.
Yet Representative Metcalf seems concerned with only a small portion of them. Montgomery County has a tenth of that population in only a 1,000 square miles. And Metcalf represents only part of Montgomery County and a third of its population. Yet Mr. Metcalf seems to want to manage the SJRA for the benefit of 1 out of every 30 people in the watershed.
Last session, he introduced a bill that would have prohibited any downstream representation on the SJRA board. Luckily, it failed.
That point seems to have eluded everyone who voted for Metcalf’s amendment. I hope calmer minds prevail.
Had this vote happened after Harvey, I think few would have defended the SJRA or Jace Houston. But since then, I have seen a concerted effort to find balance between upstream and downstream interests, as the Governor directed.
Metcalf’s amendment could potentially tilt the balance back upstream, the way it was before Harvey. We just don’t know. The uncertainty worries me. Will we be saying goodbye to lake lowering and hello to more subsidence?
Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/29/2023
2069 Days since Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.