Flowing cash to Nebraska’s water resources

Flowing cash to Nebraska’s water resources

By Joe Duggan January 29, 2013 4:09 pm Comments

The early days of the 2013 Nebraska Legislature have been dominated by Gov. Dave Heineman’s plan to abolish income taxes while instituting sales tax on some currently exempted categories.

Count Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson among those who have an idea on how spend a chunk of the sales tax revenue after the dust settles. He introduced Legislative Bill 516 last week to devote $50 million to $60 million a year on comprehensive management of the state’s water resources.  The Nebraska Water Legacy Act includes a provision to direct a 1/4-cent of the state sales tax to pay for water management.

Few would bet the farm on the success of a sales tax earmark for water, especially because lawmakers have yet to gauge the full impact of their 2011 decision to lock up 25-percent of the tax for roads funding.

But the water legacy bill also would create a new governor-appointed council to allocate the funds for rehab of water delivery systems, research to improve water sustainability, new water projects and complying with interstate water compacts.

Some of the state’s top water policy experts arrived at the ideas through a series of meetings ….

… and round-table discussions that also included irrigation, ag and natural resources interests. Read our story about their work here.

Carlson, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, has said devoting major funding to water is critical, whether it’s done through sales tax, fees on water users or some other method.

Using a two-track approach, Carlson also introduced LB 517 to create a 18-member water sustainability task force to identify the state’s top water priorities.  The task force would consist of 12 voting members appointed by the Natural Resources Committee and three appointed by the governor. Non-voting members would be directors of the Department of Natural Resources and the Game and Parks Commission along with the chairman of the Natural Resources Commission.  

The task force would submit a report to the Legislature by the end of January 2014. Their work would be paid for with an allocation from the severance tax the state collects on oil and gas production. A dollar amount isn’t specified in the bill.

So the sales tax bill seems like a much tougher get with all the uncertainty swirling over Nebraska’s tax policy. The task force bill could tee up the water funding issue for next year by telling senators specifically how the money would be used.

Either way, expect Carlson and other lawmakers to push water funding. At the very least, Carlson said he wants his colleagues to have a serious discussion about it this session so they’ll be ready to act in the next.