The 1st Regular Session, of the 102nd Legislature has started. The 2011 Session is a 90-day session, or "long" session, that began on Jan. 5 and is scheduled to end June 8. We have already finished 17 legislative days and introduced 698 bills, but I would like to take time in this week's letter to talk about Legislative Bill 229.
LB 229, introduced by Sen. Fischer of Valentine, proposes to do two things. First, it would direct a transfer of $7 million from the Environmental Trust Fund to the Water Resources Cash Fund, each year for 10 years, starting July 1, 2011. Second, the bill would add another use for the WRCF. It would allow money in the fund to be used for studies and grants to help comply with the Nebraska Groundwater Management and Protection Act.
Supporters of LB 229 see this yearly transfer of $7 million out of the ETF to the WRCF as a reliable source of funding for the many necessary water issues throughout the state, especially for the coming compliance requirements for the Platte River Cooperative Agreement. They also recognize that if we do not find the funds to help the Platte River comply with the agreement the federal government will make regulations and decisions for the Platte River. The Republican River Basin understands that problem well. If Nebraska were to pull out of the Cooperative Agreement it could potentially put the federal licenses of Gerald Gentleman Power Plant and Kingsley Dam in jeopardy.
Of course, there are many environmental groups who do not want the money from the ETF spent for some of the projects in the WRCF. In addition, a $7 million transfer is about half of the yearly funds available for grants out of the ETF, which would severely cut the dollars available for the Environmental Trust grants.
This leads me to a few concerns I have about LB 299. My first concern is with the process, particularly, the Legislature going in and taking money from the ETF outside of the grant process for such a long time. The people voted for the ETF and any long-term or permanent change probably should include their vote.
The Environmental Trust has cooperated in the past with the Legislature by providing needed funds for vegetative management in the Republican River Basin through the grant process. Not taking cash funds would follow the spirit of the policy recently established by the Legislature of not raiding the corn check-off cash fund, but a judge is not going to look at a promise of funds through a grant process as a reliable source of funding for Nebraska's required commitment to the Cooperative Agreement; this complicates things.
Another concern is that the Republican will most likely have to do with less money to finish our vegetation removal projects. It could be half of the $2.58 million currently.
My third concern is that the Legislature is setting up two different expectations, or policies, for the Republican River Basin and the Platte River Basin. I would find it hard to watch the Platte get most of $70 million over 10 years without the expectation from the rest of the state and the Legislature that the Platte should also tax themselves like the Republican had to.
Now do not get me wrong, I believe the Platte needs and deserves money to address water issues that are state responsibilities, but to receive money without the expectation that the Platte should pitch in with increases from local revenue like the Republican, is a little hard to go along with.
I agree that the Platte is a larger river than the Republican and should get more money, but I do know that most, if not all, of the Platte Natural Resources Districts involved with the Cooperative Agreement are not up against their property tax lids, or using an occupation tax like the Republican.
The Republican has received about $20.4 million; minus $9 million they owe the state, which brings their total to about $11.4 million from the state. I think the potential disparity speaks for itself.
Are there other options to LB 229's taking $7 million outside the grant process from the ETF for the WRCF? We rejected the corn check-off, and a statewide sales tax, which leaves us with cutting other places in government, or having the Platte NRDs use the occupation tax. Or, we could take $7 million from the ETF for two years, and put the rest up for a vote to the people of Nebraska.
There is no easy answer to the funding of the Platte River Cooperative Agreement, but without money the federal government will bring regulation to the Platte and pick winners and losers.
Again, I do want to help the Platte River find the money to help with their compliance with the agreement, but I want it to be the right way, with consistent policies throughout the state with the people's blessing. I am not certain LB 229 in its current form does that.
I would appreciate hearing your thoughts and opinions on LB 229, please, call my office at 402-471-2805 or for more information you can view my legislative website at http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist44/.