Amid Kansas’ financial crisis, efforts to fund long-term water plan grind to a halt in Legislature

Reps. Ken Rahjes, Tom Sloan, Ponka-We Victors and Susie Swanson, members of the House Committee on Water and Environment, listen Jan. 31, 2017, during testimony on a bill to increase fees to fund the State Water Plan.

? Lawrence Rep. Tom Sloan was given a difficult task this year when he was named to chair a new committee dealing specifically with water and environmental policy.

His charge was to come up with a way to fund Gov. Sam Brownback’s long-range “vision” for protecting the state’s water resources, estimated at around $50 million a year, at a time when the state faces massive revenue shortfalls and a Supreme Court order to increase funding for public education.

Now, midway through the 2017 session, Sloan has admitted that progress has come to a virtual standstill, at least for now.

“There is agreement among all the committee members and the stakeholders — I mean the ag groups, the municipal representatives, conservation districts, everybody — that we need to be investing more in protecting the water supply and water quality,” Sloan said.

The problem, he said, is that the interest groups all support the funding plan originally offered by Gov. Sam Brownback’s “Blue Ribbon Task Force” on water issues. That called for carving out one-tenth of one cent of the state’s existing sales tax and dedicating it to water projects, something he said cannot pass the House and which House leaders won’t even consider in light of the state’s looming $755 million revenue shortfall for the next two years.

“I spoke with the Speaker (Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr.) and the Majority Leader (Rep. Don Hineman) and Minority Leader (Rep. Jim Ward) … and I asked them, if I bring a bill out of committee that says we’re going to take the sales tax, are you going to run it,” Sloan said. “I thought they were going to shoot the messenger. No, it just didn’t make sense.”

The only funding plan that would stand a chance of passing, he said, is one that the stakeholder groups are not yet willing to consider: increasing the fees they all now pay into the State Water Fund.

Stakeholders won’t agree to that, he said, until the Legislature itself resumes paying in the $6 million in State General Fund money which, under law, it is supposed to contribute, even though the state hasn’t contributed that money for the last several years.

“The stakeholders are saying now they won’t support anything until the SGF money is restored,” Sloan said.

Kent Askren, director of public policy for the Kansas Farm Bureau, said that was an accurate description of his group’s position.

“It’s really tough to try to sell any type of a fee or new tax to folks when the state hasn’t been living up to its share of the obligation for many years, and many tens of millions of dollars,” he said.

Mike Muirhead of the Garden City Public Utilities Department, who is this year’s president of the advocacy group Kansas Municipal Utilities Inc., expressed the same sentiment.

“Nobody wants to raise rates, of course,” he said. “But we would like to have assurance that the state will do its part and the funding will be there and not be swept into something else.”

The State Water Fund is a pot of money established in the 1980s that was set up specifically to fund projects that address water quantity and water quality issues in Kansas.

People who use municipal water systems, including the city of Lawrence’s water system, pay a fee of $3 a month into that fund. There are also fees on farm chemicals and fertilizers, livestock facilities and a variety of other things that affect water in Kansas.

All told, those fees generate about $12 million a year. But the fund is supposed to receive another $8 million a year — $6 million from the State General Fund, plus $2 million from state Lottery proceeds — that the state has not been contributing.

The money is used for a variety of projects such as water conservation programs, stream-bank stabilization and wetlands management that are aimed at preserving the state’s supply of water or protecting water quality.

In more recent years, though, Kansas water resources have come under stress from statewide droughts, from over-pumping of underground aquifers in western Kansas and from the silting up of reservoirs in central and eastern Kansas.

In 2013, Brownback put together a Blue Ribbon Task Force to study long-range water issues in the state and to develop a 50-year “vision” for managing the state’s water resources.

That group issued its first full report in 2015, which called for a multiyear plan that included water conservation measures, improved reservoir management, and developing new irrigation technologies and crop varieties that would use less water.

Brownback then appointed a subgroup of that panel to come up with a funding stream for that plan. That group made its formal recommendations in January, when it called for earmarking one-tenth of a cent of the state’s existing sales tax, or about $50 million a year, for water projects.

Sloan said this past week that he and other committee members will urge the Appropriations Committee to restore the $6 million annual payment from the general fund into the water plan, but he is not optimistic, despite the fact that it’s such a tiny portion of the state’s $6 billion general fund budget.

“We’re already $700 million short,” he said. “We’ve deferred KPERS contributions. Is that a higher priority? School finance is $500 million, give or take. Is that a higher priority? Oh, yeah it is because it’s in the Constitution. We need Osawatomie Hospital repairs so we can get federal dollars again. Where does that fit in? Yes, $6 million is a drop in the bucket, but is it important enough?”

Meanwhile, he said, he is introducing another plan that he hopes will be an acceptable compromise: a bill that would raise various water fees, with a stipulation that the fees would be halted if the governor or Legislature ever sweeps that money for another purpose, like making up for revenue shortfalls elsewhere in the budget.

It would also, for the first time, impose water usage fees on farm irrigators, who currently do not pay into the state water fund, despite the fact that they account for more than 80 percent of all water consumed in Kansas each year.

But Sloan said he is not optimistic.

“Stakeholders are going to say no new fees until the State General Fund money is restored,” he said. “And candidly, I believe that if the State General Fund was restored, then stakeholders would then say we don’t need new fees.”