Proposed water fee hikes unite city, rural forces in opposition

Feb 3, 2017

An irrigation system waters soybean plants in a field near Larned, as seen in this file photo from 2011.Credit Sandra J. Milburn / The Hutchinson NewsEdit | Remove

TOPEKA – Garden City Mayor Chris Law wasn’t in Topeka Tuesday, but he would have liked what was said.

Law sent written opposition testimony to a House Water and Environment Committee hearing on the committee’s House Bill 2032. It would generate over $6 million annually for the State Water Plan Fund by raising various fees.

Nearly everyone who testified spoke against it. When it came time for Wichita’s deputy director of Public Works and Utilities Joe Pajor’s turn at the podium, he raced through bullet points made by previous speakers and said, “Ditto.”

The bill requested by Water and Environment Committee Chairman Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, proposes:

Increasing the fee charged for commercial fertilizer inspection from $1.67 to $2.37 a ton.

Hiking the yearly fee for each registered agricultural chemical from $150 to $200.

Hiking a fee for water sold by a public water supply system from 3 cents per 1,000 gallons to 6 cents per 1,000 gallons.

Raising a fee for water appropriated for industrial use or stock watering from 3 cents per 1,000 gallons to 4.5 cents per 1,000 gallons

Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Grain and Feed Association and Groundwater Management Districts 3 and 5, and the League of Kansas Municipalities voiced opposition.

State’s non-support

The “glaring absentee in funding for the State Water Plan,” said the League’s director Erik Sartorius, “is the state.”

Annually, the state general fund is supposed to provide $6 million, and the Economic Development Initiatives, $2 million, to the water fund. The $6 million obligation has not occurred since fiscal year 2009 and the $2 million obligation has not been met since fiscal year 2012, Sartorius pointed out.

In 2013, Gov. Sam Brownback called for a 50-year vision for the future of Kansas water. Meetings took place across the state and a vision was written.

A Blue Ribbon Task Force subsequently recommended dedicating one-tenth of one percent of the state’s current retail sales tax to support the Kansas Water Plan Fund. The task force considered fees hikes but preferred the sales-tax option. In addition, the task force recommended the sales tax funding mechanism be made a constitutional amendment so the Legislature could not sweep the fund, Sartorius noted.

Seiwert: Irrigators?

Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, said he saw a lot of fee increases in the proposed bill, but none on the biggest groundwater users: Irrigators.

Kansas Farm Bureau’s Kent Askren defended irrigators in his testimony. Irrigators aren’t getting a free ride, he said.

“Irrigated land is valued and taxed at a much higher rate than dry cropland based specifically upon the amount of water going through the water right holder’s flowmeter,” he said.

Kansas Farm Bureau supports the sales-tax alternative.

Committee Chairman Tom Sloan, himself a farm owner, observed that farmers benefit from sales-tax exemptions and committee member Rep. Susie Swanson, R-Clay Center, referred to farmers benefiting from income tax changes in 2012 that are partly blamed for leaving the state short on revenues.

David Pope, former chief engineer-director of the Division of Water Resources, voiced support for the fee hikes on behalf of the Kansas Society of Professional Engineers. The $6 million-plus doesn’t go far enough, but “understanding the fiscal climate of the state, the dedication of sales tax will be tough to implement,” Pope said.