87th LegislatureLocal NewsState SenateTaxes & SpendingTexas Lawmakers Mull Creation of New Tax District for Storm Surge Barrier in Galveston Bay

A proposed district covering five Texas coastal counties would have powers to levy taxes, issue bonds, and exercise eminent domain for the construction of a storm surge barrier.
March 30, 2021
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Texas lawmakers are considering creating a new regional district with the authority to tax and issue bonds and wield powers of eminent domain for the purpose of constructing and maintaining a storm surge barrier for Galveston Bay.

Plans to build a coastal “spine” or barrier have long been in the works for the flood-prone region and following 2008’s deadly Hurricane Ike storm surge, residents and elected officials have been urging federal authorities to press forward with plans for an “Ike Dike” to protect against potentially deadlier events.

State Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) has introduced Senate Bill (SB) 1160 to create the Gulf Coast Protection District (GCPD) to cover five counties along the gulf coast: Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson, and Orange. 

Taylor presented his bill early Monday during a Senate Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee hearing, during which he explained that the proposed GCPD would be a step toward providing the infrastructure and local funding for what will be a US Army Corps of Engineers project.

In laying out his proposal, Taylor noted that the region is home to the nation’s number one supplier of military aviation fuel and the number one petrochemical complex and has implications for national security and military readiness.

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“This is a very important bill, and not just for the state of Texas, but for our country,” said Taylor.

The project would include swinging gates across the entrance to Galveston Bay along with a new levee system, similar to infrastructure operating in Holland.

Taylor’s legislation, along with a House companion bill authored by Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston), would establish a board of 11 directors to be appointed by the governor. Taylor explained that each county would have a representative, but Harris County would have two, while remaining directors would represent the ports, area industry, the region’s cities, and the environmental sector.

Total costs for construction and contributions required from local partners were the subject of some debate during Monday’s hearing. 

Witnesses representing the City of Galveston and Galveston County testified in support of the legislation, while Danielle Goshen of the Galveston Bay Foundation testified in opposition.

Among objections presented by Goshen were concerns over inflated costs and the estimated 20 years the project would take to complete.

“Simply put, this plan is too expensive for what it proposes,” said Goshen. “The district proposes to raise over $9 billion in local cost share. All this is expected to come from the local taxpayers…of five coastal counties.”

She said estimates placed the Harris County contribution alone at “an astronomical $7.8 billion,” and that the district would also have to raise $131 million per year for maintenance and operation costs for the next 50 years.

Taylor explained that costs for a barrier stretching along the entire Texas coast had been estimated at approximately $26 to $30 billion, but he said the portion concerning the new district would run at approximately $18 billion.

Of the cost, local partners are expected to provide about 35 percent, or about $6 billion according to Taylor. 

Although he acknowledged that using the usual federal appropriations process, the project would take 20 years to complete after congressional approval, one reason for creating the new district was to exert pressure on congress to provide a direct appropriation which would allow for quicker completion.

In answer to questions from Sen. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas), Taylor said his bill would cap the ad valorem property tax at $0.05, and that the rate would not run afoul of caps set during the 2019 legislative session. 

Taxes levied would have to be approved by voters in the district. At $0.05 per $100 of valuation, the annual tax burden for a home valued at $200,161, the approximate median home value across the five counties, would land at approximately $100 per year without a homestead exemption. 

Referring to the massive costs of storm surge damage, Taylor asserted that the project would pay for itself time and time again. 

“Once we get it built it will be there for the next 80 to one hundred years,” said Taylor. “This is not a matter [of] if we’re ever going to get hit by a storm; we will get hit.”

An initial version of the bill included Brazoria County, but a committee substitute will drop Brazoria since Taylor said the county already has infrastructure and projects underway.

One section of the proposed legislation however, stipulates that the district shall annex the territory of counties included in the Army Corp’s protection and restoration study “at the request of the commissioners court of that county.” 

In voicing her support for creating the new district, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) noted the region was facing a “ticking time bomb.”

“This is not easy, and complicated, and it’s very expensive, but I think it’s just a path we have to go down.”

The committee unanimously voted in support for the SB 1160 substitute which excludes Brazoria County. The House companion has been referred to the Committee on Natural Resources. 

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.