Only in the legislature can a measure designed to provide transparency be morphed so quickly into an instrument of darkness. On Tuesday, Senate Bill 523 by Sen. Brian Birdwell will be eligible for consideration by the Texas Senate. The measure, aimed at subjecting river authorities to sunset review, now effectively shields two highly controversial river authorities from scrutiny.

In his analysis of the bill, Birdwell correctly notes that the appointed boards of directors of quasi-governmental river authorities are “not accountable to voters.” His analysis goes on to state that there is “no public recourse for a citizen if they have an issue with a river authority.”

Birdwell need not tell this to citizens of Granbury, Texas, who have watched their lake, which was historically maintained at a constant level, be drained by the Brazos River Authority (BRA) in the interest of wealthy landowners and utility companies.

Likewise he doesn’t have to tell landowners in East Texas who are fighting against having their family farms and ranches flooded to build the massive new Marvin Nichols Reservoir. They know how hard it is to fight against the combination of government authorities, engineering firms, and other contractors who stand to profit from subsidized state water projects.

Yet SB 523 does two things to block these Texans from scrutinizing the authorities threatening their property.

Currently the Sulphur River Basin Authority (SRBA), which would oversee the construction of Marvin Nichols Reservoir, is scheduled to be sunset in 2017. That means that under current law, it will go under review later this year and, if it is not renewed by legislative act in 2017, will expire in September of that year. But SB 523 would make the SRBA permanent, and delay its review until 2023. Advocates for Marvin Nichols would certainly like another eight years without scrutiny to move forward on their project.

More bizarrely, though, is what the committee substitute to SB 523 does with the Brazos River Authority. Filed by Birdwell, who represents Granbury, and accompanied in the House by House Bill 1290 by Rep. Jim Keffer, who also represents the beleaguered town, SB 523 seemed to be aimed primarily at the BRA as an effort to assure voters that entity was not engaged in the corruption that many perceive.

As filed, SB 523 scheduled the River Authorities for review by the Sunset Commission in alphabetical order, with the BRA being one of the first authorities up for review in 2017. But the substitute bizarrely wedges the BRA in between the Sabine and the San Antonio River Authorities, delaying its review until 2023. By that time, the statute of limitations on any of the current malfeasance related to Lake Granbury and Possum Kingdom Lake will have long passed.

Subjecting Texas’ river authorities to sunset review is a laudable goal. However unless and until these two provisions relating to the Sulphur River Basin Authority and the Brazos River Authority are addressed, we must urge a “no” vote on SB 523.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.