Telescopes and natural disasters. That’s what is packed into one of the latest ads from Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, the Democratic hopeful looking to unseat U.S. Rep. John Culberson, the 18-year Republican incumbent in Texas’ 7th Congressional District.
The district covers a portion of western Houston and backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a margin of 1.4 points.
Fletcher's ad "My House," released Oct. 12, hits Culberson with claims that he got "$680 million for a telescope in South America" while also "voting against funding to fix dams in Texas and against FEMA funding to prepare for floods."
The ad shows residents holding up photos of their homes flooded out by storms that hit the area — Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, the Memorial Day Flood in 2015, and Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
In our analysis, we found that Culberson was involved in the funding of an expensive telescope and did vote against bills that had components of fixing dams and funding for FEMA. However, the telescope money is a bit misconstrued, and his votes on dams and FEMA would have had little to no impact on Houston’s recovery.
The telescope in question is called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). According to Science Magazine, a peer-reviewed academic journal, the LSST will be the ultimate survey telescope, mapping the sky every three days and logging anything that moves, changes or disappears.
Construction began in 2014 and the National Science Foundation expects it to be completed by 2023. It’s a U.S.-backed project, but according to the NSF, Chile was selected for the telescope’s location because of "optimal sky transparency and image quality."
The NSF expects to spend a total of $473 million on the telescope, given in increments by the appropriations committee over the project’s 9-year timeline. The U.S. Energy Department is putting up $168 million. There was also some private funding put toward the project raised by the LSST Corporation.
The $680 million the ad talks about is the total cost of the telescope that was already approved by the U.S. House appropriations subpanel on commerce, justice and science, which Culberson chairs.
The Fletcher campaign refers to a May 2018 Science Magazine article that discusses Culberson accelerating the telescope’s funding.
To stay on pace with the timeline, NSF assumed that Congress would provide almost $49 million in 2019. Instead, Culberson decided to put $123 million into the 2019 bill – a $74 million jump.
LSST directors, along with NSF officials, were baffled by the increase, according to the article, but Culberson said it was a move to get things up and running quickly.
Whether speeding up the project was necessary or not, it doesn’t have much to do with flooding in Houston. That’s because the money funding the telescope cannot be moved or allocated to another budget, as the ad implies.
There are 12 appropriations bills, and each bill is allotted a certain amount of money for one fiscal year. The NSF is funded in the CJS bill (commerce, justice, science). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which funds many flood-control infrastructure projects, is part of the Energy and Water bill. Congress is not permitted to move money between bills.
The ad highlights Culberson’s vote against H.R. 3324, known as the Dam Rehabilitation and Repair Act of 2007.
The bill, which ultimately passed the house, would authorize $201 million over five years for a FEMA grant program to fix publicly-owned deficient dams.
The root of contention in the district are the 1940s-era Addicks and Barker dams, Houston’s primary defense against flooding and both aging structures that were deemed to be "high risk" as early as 2004.
The dams were in the middle of repairs (from a 2015, $72 million effort to construct new outlet gates) when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, and forced officials to release water that flooded neighborhoods.
But the 2007 bill that Culberson voted against would not have impacted either dam, as the program would have only rehabilitated non-federally owned dams. The Addicks and Barker dams are owned by the federal government and would not have benefited from the program.
According to Congressional Quarterly, which tracks how members of Congress vote, Culberson voted against a Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., motion in June 2013 that would have recommitted bill HR 2217, (the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act 2014), to the Appropriations Committee and "report it back immediately with an amendment that would increase by $25 million the total provided for FEMA activities including state and local programs, training, exercises and technical assistance." The funding would also be used for a pre-disaster mitigation grant program.
The motion was rejected by a vote of 196-226.
The Culberson campaign says this was a procedural vote on a bill that would have added money to first responder training, not funding to aid homeowners or make infrastructure more resilient. Culberson voted for the final version of the bill, which passed 245-182.
In the final version, the bill directs FEMA to manage the funds made available to address any major disaster declared on or after Aug. 27, 2011, and to establish a pilot program for the relocation of state facilities.
The bill included almost $158 million for training first responders on state and local levels and $6.2 billion for the FEMA disaster relief fund. In one of the bill’s approved amendments, funding for FEMA’s National Predisaster Mitigation Fund was increased by $7.65 million.
Fletcher’s ad, which shows victims of recent flooding, says that Culberson got $680 million for a telescope in South America but voted against measures to fix dams and help prevent flooding. That claim is misleading.
Culberson chairs a committee that allocated money for space projects and more than doubled the amount that the telescope group requested for 2019. However, it was already within the $680 million total cost of the project, and the money could not be transferred to flood relief.
Culberson did vote against two measures — one in 2007 and one in 2013 — that had to do with fixing dams and FEMA funding. But the earlier bill provided money to fix publicly-owned dams, excluding the federally-owned Addicks and Barker structures, the two dams that impacted Houston during Harvey and the Memorial Day flood.
The 2013 motion would have added on an amendment to increase $25 million for FEMA programs. He voted against that motion, but voted for the final version of the bill, which included an additional $7.65 million to FEMA, besides money already in place for training first responders and the disaster relief fund.
The ad gets some things right, but doesn’t provide context for the measures he voted against as well as the full story behind the telescope.
We rate it Mostly False.