Staffing shortages and infrastructure spending: Natural resources budget priorities

Texas’ state budget serves as the leading driver for state policy. The success or failure of state agencies and programs hinge on appropriations decisions made by the legislators once every two years. The anticipated $27 billion surplus for the upcoming 88th Legislative Session offers a generational opportunity for our natural resources policy, such as how we manage our water resources, steward our energy sector and preserve our public lands.

The Texas Legislature will have the opportunity to tackle two key natural resources policy matters in this upcoming budget cycle. 

Staffing Shortages

The first is the glaring, growing problem of staffing shortages and capacity at several critical natural resources agencies. 

Many of our natural resources agencies, including the Texas Water Development Board, Public Utility Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, are plagued with the problems of high turnover and the inability to recruit qualified applicants for open positions. Austin’s job and real estate markets are not helping much here.  

Agencies that can’t hire the right people face an uphill battle when it comes to meeting public and legislative expectations. For example, fewer qualified personnel increases the amount of time that it takes for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to review permit applications or for the Public Utility Commission to process electric or water rate cases. Delays here slow economic development. The same could be said for the Texas Water Development Board: The agency’s capacity to develop needed water supply and flood infrastructure depends on qualified staff.

If we want our agencies to succeed in implementing state policies, then appropriations must be made to set them up for success.

Infrastructure Spending

The second natural resources policy area that the Legislature can focus on is strategic investments for infrastructure spending. These include opportunities for information technology modernization, acquisition of lands for parks and wildlife preserves, and funding to address the growing problem of aging, deteriorating water and wastewater infrastructure. Spending here returns value to the taxpayer while providing long-term policy solutions.

State agencies have already submitted their budget requests for the upcoming session. Here is a summary of some of those natural resources agency budget requests supported by Texas 2036.

Public Utility Commission
  • The Public Utility Commission suffers from the dual challenges of increasing regulatory responsibilities and high levels of staff turnover. In response, the agency seeks increases in staffing levels and compensation to keep pace with a surging workload. This investment in agency staff capacity is essential for the effective oversight of electric and water utilities—sectors that oftentimes involve technical and complex operations.
Railroad Commission of Texas
  • Several years ago the Railroad Commission began a multiyear information technology modernization program transitioning agency programs and data away from an antiquated mainframe system. The Commission’s request for continued appropriations for this effort is essential to improve agency operations and data transparency and to avoid the liabilities associated with the mainframe system.
  • The Commission’s budget request includes line items for fluid waste recycling and carbon capture and underground storage programs. Funding for these programs is essential as the oil and gas industry continues to expand its use of produced water recycling and the development of more carbon capture projects.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
  • Staff turnover and retention is a major issue for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. According to the agency’s budget request, nearly 44% of its staff have less than five years of agency service. Failure to maintain qualified staffing levels risks delays in critical permitting and inspection programs. The agency’s request for increased funding for targeted salary increases is essential for recruiting and retaining staff needed to perform essential health, safety and environmental protection oversight.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
  • The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s budget request includes several line items for the expansion of wildlife management areas and the conservation of farm and ranch lands that are at risk of development. These requests are needed for the preservation of public lands, including the protection of wildlife species and their habitats, preservation and protection of water resources, and maximization of open space for public enjoyment.
Texas Water Development Board
  • The Texas Water Development Board’s responsibilities include the development of the state’s water and flood plans and the administration of several funding programs for water, wastewater and flood control infrastructure. Just as the Board’s responsibilities have increased over the past decade, so have the agency’s need to hire and retain qualified staff. The agency’s budget request includes needed increases in both agency staff and compensation levels.
  • The U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA, approved by Congress late last year gives Texas over $2 billion to address water infrastructure problems. States must provide matching dollars in order to receive these funds, however. Given this congressional requirement, the Board’s budget request includes the matching amounts needed for Texas to receive the maximum amount allowed by IIJA over the next two years.