Legislature debates funding for water projects, roads, schools

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March 28, 2013 - 5:06pm

Nebraska might spend one billion dollars over the next 20 years on water projects. And proposal to help decide which projects should get priority provoked a larger discussion about state priorities Thursday in the Legislature.

Last year, a study identified a series of water projects ranging from building a new reservoir and upgrading irrigation canals in western Nebraska, to stormwater and sewer improvements in the east. 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 state’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-senator, now U.S. Senator Deb Fischer, a Republican, will take about $75 million a year from the state’s general fund. Lathrop, a Democrat considering running for governor, said funding water projects on top of the money earmarked for roads would lead to two possible outcomes. "Ultimately, this is about raising someone’s taxes. It’s about raising taxes or further cutting state aid to schools. That’s what this is about," he said.

Lathrop said the proposed Water Funding Task Force "reminds me of doing an MRI on a terminal patient. What are you going to do? If you’re not going to do surgery, what do you need an MRI for?" he asked.

Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, a Republican, disagreed that roads funding was hurting school aid. "I 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," he told his fellow senators.

Under the latest proposal by the Education Committee, school aid, mentioned by Lathrop, would be $905 million next fiscal year. That’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 force’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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