Topeka An interim legislative committee agreed Monday not to recommend raising any fees to pay for projects that would extend the life of the state's water resources, something that has been a high priority for the Brownback administration.
Instead, the joint Special Committee on Natural Resources, said only that the Legislature should fully fund its obligation to put $6 million of state general fund money into the water plan, along with $2 million of lottery proceeds — something it hasn't been done since 2012.
The panel also recommended a bill authorizing a comprehensive review of current state water law, something that hasn't been done since the 1950s.
Lawrence Republican Rep. Tom Sloan, who chaired the committee, said he was disappointed by that outcome.
"I really had hoped that we had gotten enough information about priorities that will make a difference long term, particularly on the research side — what programs are cost effective to prevent sedimentation or address the blue-green algae — that we would be able to say yes, it’s in the public good to increase user fees a small amount to address this," Sloan said. "So yes, I’m disappointed, but come January I’ll be trying again."
While there was near universal agreement on the panel that the state needs to invest more money into preserving its water resources — whether that be the rapidly depleting Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas or the reservoirs in eastern Kansas that are filling up with sediment — the interim committee ran into the same roadblock that Sloan's Water and Environment Committee ran into during the regular session.
That is, there was no agreement about where any new funding should come from.
Since the 1980s, Kansas has maintained a State Water Plan Fund, which receives money from the general fund, lottery proceeds and a wide assortment of fees charged to different classes of water users.
For the current fiscal year, that fund will receive about $11.5 million. That includes only about $1.2 million of the $6 million that is supposed to come from the state general fund. But a blue-ribbon panel that Brownback appointed has recommended raising that to about $56 million a year.
To pay for that, the panel recommended earmarking a portion of the state's current sales tax. But legislative leaders quickly ruled that out and have said that if there is going to be any additional funding for water projects, it will have to come from user fees.
Currently, municipal water customers pay 3 cents per thousand gallons of water they use, a fee that is assessed on monthly water bills. That generates about $3.3 million a year. There are also fees for industrial water customers, livestock watering, farm chemicals and sand royalties, to name a few.
But there is one class of water users in Kansas that is not charged a fee for the water they use, and they are the biggest water consumers of all: farm irrigators, who account for more than 80 percent of all the water consumed each year in Kansas.
The Kansas Farm Bureau and other agricultural interests argued that those farmers are already taxed for the water they use because irrigated farmland produces more, which results in higher property taxes.
State Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey pointed out that irrigated farmland generates about $6.7 million in additional property taxes compared with nonirrigated farmland, and that the agricultural production from that land has about a $4 billion economic impact in the state.
Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, said that with the farm economy already roiling from low commodity prices, he did not think it was fair to talk about levying additional fees on irrigators.
"And this is an ag state," he said. "We always forget that. This is an ag state. And to just pick on the ag industry and say we’re going to stick a fee on you guys so we can pay for something, I think that’s wrong."
But Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said she did not think it was fair to put the cost of any increased funding on the state general fund, and at one point she suggested that if irrigators are not going to pay into the fund, then the state should consider lowering the fee on municipal water customers.
"My concern was, they are talking about funding additional activity in the state water plan through the state general fund so everyone is participating," she said after the meeting. "That’s what I hear from irrigators: ‘Let’s use the state general fund because that means everybody’s participating.’ So I was just asking, if irrigators aren’t paying into the state water plan, and we’re using all state general fund, does that mean we can reduce the fees that we’re asking from some individual members."
Francisco had proposed that irrigators should at least be responsible for funding the cost of the Kansas Geological Survey's annual well-monitoring program, estimated at about $85,000 a year, but there was little support for that on the committee.
"I don't think that at this point in time there's any reason to be putting fees on irrigators," Billinger said. "I think they pay more than their fair share."