Bill Johnson, Carpe Geo Evangelist, AppGeo

There’s a car dealer in my home area whose incessant TV and radio ads feature him bellowing at the end of every commercial in a long, drawn-out “It’s…HUGE!”  I don’t mean to attach any negative sentiments to the election news from Texas, but I can’t help thinking that the passage by the voters of Proposition 8, the Texas Flood Infrastructure Fund, truly does merit that tagline.  


Floods Resulting from Hurricane Harvey, August 31, 2017

This is no small thing.  We’re talking about Texas, after all, and they do things on a grand scale there.  Prop 8 actually amends the Texas state constitution and makes the Texas Flood Infrastructure Fund permanent.  It can only be revoked by another ballot initiative passed by the voters.  Since Prop 8 passed with nearly 78% voting in favor, it seems highly unlikely that voters would seek to revoke it anytime in the foreseeable future.  Texans seem to understand that the massive flooding that occurred in Houston from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 is part of an emerging pattern of more intense storms and an increased risk of flooding in the future.  They want to be better prepared.

The Texas Flood Infrastructure Fund was actually created earlier this year by the state legislature, with an appropriation of $793 million from the state’s “rainy day fund” (more properly, the Economic Stabilization Fund, but I like the irony of rainy day fund to pay for flood work).  Had Prop 8 not passed, the fund would be subject to whatever the legislature would decide to do in two years. Prop 8 makes it permanent, and enables multiple sources of funding to keep it replenished. 

The fund will operate as a revolving loan fund for communities to conduct flood infrastructure projects.  In some particularly needy cases, the funds will be grants that do not need to be repaid. The fund will also use the statewide buying power of the Texas Natural Resource Information System (TNRIS), which is the home of the Texas Geographic Information Officer, Richard Wade.  Accurate and up-to-date GIS data layers (rivers, shorelines, streets, addresses, parcels, aerial imagery, and especially high resolution elevation data from LiDAR) are essential for communities to determine their flood-prone areas, inform their citizens, and take measures to protect against future flood damage.   Richard and his team of state GIS professionals will produce the needed GIS data on no more than a 5-year refresh cycle. All of this data will be publicly available as part of the Texas Strategic Mapping Initiative (StratMap), statewide. TNRIS has created a lot of the data already, but the fund will now ensure that they can fill any data gaps and keep all of it refreshed and available for use by any community in Texas.  

Proposition 8 is unprecedented for GIS funding 

I’ve been involved in state GIS activities for 35 years, and to the best of my knowledge, the passage of Prop 8 is an unprecedented approach to funding statewide GIS.  At the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) annual conference, they conduct a “roll call of the states”, where every state rep has two minutes to briefly list their accomplishments and challenges.  Every year, nearly every state lists funding as their biggest challenge. It’s almost a given that state GIS offices run on threadbare budgets. A significant work activity for nearly all state GIOs is to be relentlessly seeking partner funding from other state, local, and federal agencies to gather adequate funds for data projects. This includes aerial imagery or LiDAR elevation data, where the norm is that even with partner funding, there is not enough for full statewide coverage at the desired resolution and refresh cycles. Instead, a triage model is applied to produce data for the highest priority areas.  You won’t hear Texas mention funding as a challenge at NSGIC meetings.  

Prop 8 is a game-changer.  It represents a bold move by one of the state legislators, Dade Phelan, whose district (21) extends north from San Antonio to Austin.  His introduction of the ballot initiative was a savvy political move that taps into widespread public sentiment about increased flood risks across the state, not just in the Houston area, and that all parts of Texas need to be better prepared. He captured a “moment of opportunity” that occurred as a result of the devastation from Hurricane Harvey, but whose roots began earlier with the flooding in nearby New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.  One could even argue that the true root of flood awareness in Texas traces back to the massive hurricane flooding that devastated the city of Galveston in 1900.  

Applying the lesson of Prop 8 in other states

Other states contemplating their fiscal woes for statewide GIS initiatives may feel that there is no parallel between their situation and the situation in Texas, but I beg to differ.  Both natural and human-induced disasters occur throughout the country. Each time a disaster occurs, there is a period of time when awareness and sensitivities are elevated, and a window of opportunity may briefly be open.  But disasters are not the only generators of these moments of opportunity. Political initiatives can also be powerful forces when the public is supportive. These can be on virtually any subject: public health, education, infrastructure, environment, broadband expansion, or anything else.  When there is support for an initiative, there is also a need for the underlying resources to understand the scope of the problem and to direct resources accurately. These are opportunities for GIS. Seizing GIS opportunities is the heart and soul of carpe geo.  

Texas is not the only state with a rainy day fund, either.  Nearly every state has one. The 2019 Fiscal Survey of the States, published by the National Association of State Budget Officers, reports that rainy day fund balances across the country reached an all-time high last year.  The median is now 7.5% of general revenue spending. This means that most states have the capacity to fund important initiatives to deal with the unexpected, such as a natural disaster.  

I blogged recently about the need for state GIS programs to consider all of the changes that have occurred since those offices began in the 1990’s.  Taking advantage of moments of opportunity was not something I included in that post, but I now see it as another piece of the v2.0 puzzle.  And not a small, inconsequential piece. As my local car dealer would say, it’s HUGE!