Members of the Texas House of Representatives will meet today in one of the first meetings of the state’s legislative body to be held since Hurricane Harvey.
The House’s Appropriation Committee will hold a hearing at the University of Houston this morning. The committee will discuss the federal funds spent by state agencies after Harvey, and how to “maximize the use” of federal money to reduce damage from future disasters.
The committee also will discuss what state resources could be used for disaster recovery efforts, and how the state might invest in infrastructure projects related to storm protection.
The meeting is part of a charge made to legislators by House Speaker Joe Straus in September about issues to be dealt with during the interim session.
The Texas Legislature’s special session ended on Aug. 15, about two weeks before Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Rockport. The storm devastated communities across Texas with both wind and flooding rains. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed and dozens were killed.
“Hurricane Harvey has devastated our state and upended the lives of millions of Texans,” Straus said in his order for Harvey-related hearings. “While the state is taking a number of immediate actions to help Texans begin to recover, and will continue to do so, the Legislature will have a substantial role to play in both the recovery process and in preparation for future storms.”
The appropriations committee is responsible for drafting the House’s version of the state budget.
The use of state funds for recovery has been a contentious issue in recent weeks. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has resisted calls to order a special session, which would allow legislators to tap into the state’s $10 billion Rainy Day Fund, a savings account that is funded by oil and gas revenues.
Last week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the lack of financial support from the state would cause him to temporarily raise taxes in the city to pay for recovery measures. On Friday, Abbott met with Turner and delivered a $50 million check from a state disaster recovery fund to Turner. Turner subsequently announced he would not pursue a tax increase.
Abbott has said he prefers waiting until the next regular session of the legislature to discuss using the Rainy Day fund. The next session is not scheduled to begin until 2019. The wait will allow the state to get a full grasp of the damage caused by Harvey. The total damage is estimated to be between $150 billion and $180 billion.
So far, Texas communities have received $280 million in advance payments for infrastructure repair from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Another $1.85 billion in individual aid also has been provided by FEMA, the Small Business Administration and the National Flood Insurance Program.
The meeting will also focus on infrastructure projects that could prevent damage from future hurricanes, including the 30-mile coastal barrier system that was first proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
While legislators have in the past approved committees that study the feasibility of the barrier, there’s been little money committed to the project in the nine years since Ike.
During the latest legislative session, a bill that would have appointed the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority to manage the operation and maintenance of the barrier, should it be built, passed the Senate, but was left pending in the House of Representatives.