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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

Water task force leaning toward sales tax proposal

By Andy Marso | November 14, 2016

Water task force leaning toward sales tax proposal
Photo by Andy Marso/KHI News Service Tracy Streeter, left, director of the Kansas Water Office, and Jackie McClaskey, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, were part of Monday’s program at the Kansas Water Conference in Manhattan.

A group appointed to study funding sources for Gov. Sam Brownback’s 50-year water plan is leaning toward proposing a dedicated sales tax.

Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, presented the preliminary results of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Monday at the annual Kansas Water Conference in Manhattan.

Lewis said the task force has yet to finalize its report to Brownback, but as of Monday it intended to recommend a constitutional amendment dedicating 0.1 percent of the state sales tax to projects that secure the state’s water supply. Lewis said Minnesota, Missouri and Iowa have similar dedicated sales taxes.

The task force had some rigorous debates about other funding sources, he said.

“Any time you talk about water and fees and taxes, it’s going to be contentious,” Lewis said.

Photo by KHI News Service File Rep. Tom Sloan, a Republican from Lawrence, says he will continue to push for a legislative plan to raise water-use fees in Kansas.

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Rep. Tom Sloan, a Republican from Lawrence who has led the Legislature’s discussions on funding for water projects, said the dedicated sales tax idea would face opposition at the Statehouse.

Legislators raised the state’s sales tax to 6.5 percent in 2015 to balance the budget after a rancorous standoff that stretched the session to a record length.

But the budget problems have persisted, and Sloan said the crop of legislators elected last week would be reluctant to divert any of the current sales tax to water.

“Schools are underfunded, socials services are underfunded — there were a lot of campaigns run this fall over addressing those large issues,” he said. “So if you’re going to be taking revenue away from schools, even to fund something as important as water, it’s going to be a very difficult sell politically.”

Sloan said he would continue pushing for a plan that raises water-use fees instead.

The current low price of tap water compared to water-based products like beer causes people to undervalue clean water and waste it, he said, but increasing user fees would encourage conservation.

The task force also considered recommendations to increase irrigation fees, enact a residential electric fee to account for water used in energy production or create a 4-cent fee on bottled water. None of those found favor so far.

Water projects traditionally have been funded by a combination of fees on residential users and irrigators, as well as $8 million a year from the state general fund and an economic development fund.

But the Legislature has consistently failed to provide its share lately, shortchanging the state water fund by more than $50 million since 2009.

“Any time you talk about water and fees and taxes, it’s going to be contentious.” 

- Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office

The water plan money is needed for projects like shoring up stream banks so less sediment flows into reservoirs and the much more costly work of dredging sediment once it’s in the reservoirs.

Lewis said new threats to the state’s water supply, like the explosive growth of blue-green algae, also need to be addressed.

“That’s a big issue for us now,” he said.

The task force estimated that Kansas would need about $55 million a year in new revenue to fund the governor’s water plan.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, pointed to the ongoing dredging of the John Redmond Reservoir near Burlington as an example of a successful project.

The reservoir had lost more than 40 percent of its original capacity to sedimentation, but the first phase of the dredging — completed last month —restored 1,800 acre-feet of storage.

That project received a funding boost from a $5.5 million legal judgment against Nebraska last year over its use of the Republican River.

That was a one-time windfall, though, and Streeter said it won’t be easy to pay for similar projects.

“We’re in a tough environment now to try and find money,” Streeter said.