The chair of the Texas House Natural Resources Committee is weighing in on San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s plans to shift a sales tax that funds aquifer protection over to fund mass transit. 

In an open letter Wednesday, State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) called for Nirenberg to reconsider his plan to have the San Antonio Water System fund protection of the Edwards Aquifer and shift a one-eighth-cent portion of a local sales tax towards VIA Metropolitan Transit. 

“We strongly disagree with redirecting funding away from securing land around San Antonio to protect our water supply in favor of funding mass transit,” wrote Larson, a former city councilman and Bexar County commissioner who has become known for his work on water issues during his four terms as a legislator.  

Larson called instead for a ballot proposition in November that would present aquifer funding and mass transit as an either-or proposition. 

“Dismantling or modifying this program should not occur without a clear presentation of the proposal to voters,” Larson wrote. “The ballot language should be straightforward, clearly stating that the choice is between aquifer protection or a mass transit plan. It should also be made clear that [San Antonio Water System] ratepayers may be asked in the future to fund the program through a rate increase, if SAWS decides to operate the program.” 

In a phone interview Thursday, Nirenberg called Larson’s suggestion a “false choice.”

“This is not an either-or circumstance,” Nirenberg said. “We can continue the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and invest in a better transportation program.”

City officials say the kind of ballot language Larson is proposing isn’t legally possible.

“Unless specifically required by statute, elections must be presented as yes or no propositions, so it is not possible to hold an election that asks voters to choose between options on the same ballot,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said in an email.

Nirenberg spokesman Zack Lyke said the mayor is looking forward to speaking with Larson in person. 

On Tuesday, the SAWS board heard a proposal stating that SAWS could fund the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) at a rate of about $52 million over five years, about half the pace of the current program. 

First approved in 2000 and reapproved by voters three times since then, the EAPP involves the purchase of land or development rights on acreage on or upstream of the sensitive Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. So far, the program has preserved 160,000 acres. 

In his letter, Larson suggested Nirenberg instead target the one-eighth-cent portion of local sales tax currently allocated for Pre-K 4 SA instead of the EAPP tax. Larson argued that the Legislature’s moves last session to increase school funding, including for pre-K education, will help fund the early childhood education program. 

On Wednesday, most City Council members supported Pre-K 4 SA officials’ plans to put that sales tax renewal on the May ballot, a sign that officials are wanting to keep the educational initiative out of the crosshairs of the aquifer-versus-transportation debate. The EAPP sales tax renewal or shift to VIA is tentatively slated for the November general election. 

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.