Water projects lead to wider discussion on state priorities
March 29th, 2013
Lincoln, NE – Last year, a study identified a list of water projects ranging from a building a new reservoir and upgrading irrigation canals in western Nebraska, to stormwater and sewer improvements in the east.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Legislative-Update-0328-KVNO01.mp3]
Now, Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, wants to come up with a strategic plan for the next 20 years. Legislation he introduced would create a task force to recommend which projects to do first, and how to pay for them. Carlson estimated water projects could cost $50 million a year over the next two decades.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop agreed good water management is important for agriculture and the stateâ€™s economic health. But Lathrop said the Legislature tied its own hands by deciding two years ago to earmark a quarter cent of sales tax for roads. That law, pushed by then state-Sen. and now U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, a Republican, will take about $75 million a year from the stateâ€™s general fund. Lathrop, a Democrat said to be considering running for governor or U.S. senator to succeed Mike Johanns, said funding water projects on top of the roads set-aside would lead to two possible outcomes:
â€œUltimately, this is about raising someoneâ€™s taxes,â€ said Lathrop. â€œItâ€™s about raising taxes or further cutting state aid to schools. Thatâ€™s what this is about. It reminds me of doing an MRI on a terminal patient. What are you going to do? If youâ€™re not going to do surgery, what do you need an MRI for?â€
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, a Republican, disagreed that roads funding was hurting school aid.
â€œI will defy any of you to look at the preliminary budget and find where these draconian cuts are taking place to fund what we did,â€ Lautenbaugh said.
Under the latest proposal by the Education Committee, school aid, mentioned by Lathrop, would be $905 million next fiscal year. Thatâ€™s an increase of $53 million, or 6.3 percent, from the current year. But under the current state aid formula, schools would have gotten an additional $80 million, or more than an 11 percent increase, next year.
Despite the concerns raised by Lathrop, senators voted 33-0 to give first-round approval to the proposed Water Funding Task Force. If it is ultimately approved, the task forceâ€™s recommendations would be due early next year. The cost of the study itself was estimated at $3 million, but Carlson agreed to work on reducing that cost before the next round of debate.
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