A bill that would create a regional district to levy taxes and issue bonds to build and maintain a proposed $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast is close to reaching the governor’s desk for approval. The measure, SB1160 , is sponsored by Sen. Larry Taylor, […]
A bill that would create a regional district to levy taxes and issue bonds to build and maintain a proposed $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast is close to reaching the governor’s desk for approval.
The measure, SB1160, is sponsored by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, with a companion bill in the state House filed by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston. The legislation would establish the Gulf Coast Protection District, an entity composed of members from Harris, Galveston, Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties.
The House passed an amended version of the bill Thursday, meaning a conference committee of members from both chambers will have to hash out the differences, including a last-minute amendment that rankled some supporters of the project.
The proposal outlines a local funding and management mechanism for the long-discussed coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” the majority of which would be funded by the federal government. The district could, with voter approval, levy a tax of up to 5 cents on each $100 of property valuation. In addition to taxing authority, the local protection district could use eminent domain to seize property or land “for the exercise of the district’s functions,” according to the bill’s text.
The bill is meant to preface the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to release its final Chief Engineer’s report in August on the Ike Dike, Paul said.
“We want to be able to show them, if (the report) gets done in August, that we would have everything in place,” Paul said. “This will show that the whole state is ready to get this project done, that we want this to get done, and we’re serious about it, and we prepared all the groundwork we need to do to do it.”
Paul added he is “confident” that Congress would at least partially fund the project, especially because its own experts at the Corps have shown support for it through reports in recent years.
The creation of the district would enable the state to have a local sponsor to receive those federal funds, he said. The remainder would be funded by taxpayers in the district. It will also help with the management and oversight of existing levee and flood protection projects in Orange and Jefferson counties.
The barrier proposal calls for a gated structure stretching across the mouth of Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel. It also calls for 43 miles of dunes protecting the Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula coastline, as well as a “ring levee” that would protect the north side of Galveston island.
The entire coastal barrier project, which includes ecosystem restoration extending southwest to South Padre Island, is expected to cost $26 billion, with the dunes and sea gate at the ship channel alone accounting for $14 billion to $18 billion of that total. Once fully constructed, the Corps estimates the project will save $2.2 billion in storm damages every year.
Hurricane Ike in September 2008, the Category 2 storm with a Category 5-level storm surge, “didn’t even hit in the worst location,” Paul said.
“If we really got hit with a really bad one in the right location, that would be much more severe,” he added. “This barrier will be able to protect us all from that type of storm surge. It’s going to be designed for the worst of the worst hurricanes.”
State Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the bill, noted the barrier would add a line of defense for the region’s massive petrochemical complex.
“It’s not just the safety of citizens — it’s the security of our energy production and all of that,” he said. “The idea is to help protect some of our critical infrastructure as well as our citizens.”
During the final vote on the House bill on Tuesday, an amendment offered by Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, who represents Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula, caused some consternation.
The amendment would require at least 5 percent of registered voters in each of the five counties to sign petitions before a bond election could be held. In Harris County, that would mean more than 125,000 voters, and in Galveston County, more than 11,000.
“One of my concerns is the potential future property tax,” Middleton said in a statement to Hearst Newspapers. “While I am hopeful that the district may not need to levy a property tax, I want voters to have the final say on whether it does.”
Supporters of the coastal barrier were mystified by Middleton’s amendment, considering he had been a strong backer of the project.
“This whole (project) is to protect his citizens and he's not supporting it. That just doesn't make sense to me at all,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and a supporter of the barrier proposal.
But Middleton’s amendment has some support among local leaders hesitant to sign off on a new entity that could raise taxes for their constiuents. Galveston Mayor Craig Brown said that while the city is supportive of the project and the need for storm surge protection, “anytime we're talking about a tax increase, it is a concern.”
“It's something that we need to get clear on (the bill) as it comes out of committee, but I think some kind of precautions or some type of oversight on the ability to to issue bonds or raise taxes needs to be included,” Brown said.
Jed Webb, director of government relations for Galveston County, declined to comment on Middleton’s amendment, but said in a statement that the onus would largely be on the federal government to come up with the necessary funds “to make this important project a reality.”
The 2021 legislative session ends May 31, but bills in conference committee must be adopted by May 30.