I read with interest and discomfort as a sitting State Senator, a member of the Revenue Committee and the chairman of the Education Committee, compared hundreds of locally elected Natural Resources District (NRD) board members to “drunks” wanting the “security of the jug of whiskey.”(The characterization came as the NRD board members) and their staffs sought to educate the Legislature on why a particular levy authority for fully and over-appropriated NRDs should be extended beyond the planned sunset of 2019.
The portrait that Sen. Groene paints in his July 30 North Platte Bulletin and July 27 North Platte Telegraph columns were the predictable portrait of a bunch of tax-and-spend bureaucrats living high on the hog – the “drunks” seeking the “security of the jug,” as it were.
This sentiment is a great deal different than the sentiment that then-citizen Groene expressed in a May 2, 2014, Omaha World Herald article while running for the Legislature.
“Water issues are really relevant to our area,” Groene said, adding that irrigation and groundwater problems need to be addressed, and that in general, it's about having local control for local issues.
LB 98, supported by the vast majority of members the Legislature, would have extended the maximum 3-cent levy authority for fully and over-appropriated NRDs from fiscal year 2017-18 to FY 2025-26. This levy would have been used only to implement ground water management activities and integrated management activities under the Nebraska Ground Water Management and Protection Act.
This proposal was an extension of existing authorities, and not an increase of taxes, as Sen. Groene and his anti-tax colleagues erroneously portrayed. It would have simply provided the boards of directors in these districts the tools necessary to levy additional funds needed for these purposes.
The North Platte Natural Resources District (NPNRD) is a political subdivision that is governed by nine locally-elected directors and is situated in Scottsbluff. Those directors serve four-year terms and are the policy makers and fiduciaries of the district, which is situated in 4 and 1/3 counties, encompasses 3.5 million acres, and has many challenges related to ground water management.
A substantial portion of the district was designated as over-appropriated and the balance of the district was designated as fully appropriated under the 2004 LB 962 legislation, MANDATING an Integrated Management Plan (IMP). One of the most significant charges of the district and its board of directors is to work to meet its obligations under the Integrated Management Plan (IMP). The first increment of the Integrated Management plan requires that this district return 8,000 acre-feet of water to the North Platte River each year. The mandates have no “sunset,” though the levy authorities do.
In seeking to meet this obligation, the NPNRD has made great strides to reduce consumptive use of groundwater over the past several years. Aside from our historical moratorium on well drilling and acre expansion, every well in our district is metered, and pumping data is collected annually to provide accounting for our deficit irrigation allocation. Our directors are constantly reviewing these regulatory activities and seeking ways that we can increase regulation where it would be beneficial to meeting our obligations, but would not negatively impact the economy of our district.
We have also embarked on forward-thinking conjunctive management involving intentional recharge of surface water and reduction of consumptive use by temporary or permanent reduction of irrigated acres through acreage-retirement programs. In addition, we have utilized an alternative cropping program, an allocation buy-down program and a land-idling program to reduce consumptive use and meet our obligations. Moreover, we have reprogrammed our cost-share activities to ensure that the projects we are funding are those that will do the most good toward meeting our obligations. Scoring of applications to the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Program (NSWCP) and the NRD Cost Share program is heavily weighted to those practices and technologies that afford us the best opportunities to increase returns to the North Platte River.
These are voluntary. They have little impact on local tax rolls, and provide landowners with on-farm options to make their operations more efficient and utilize their natural resources more effectively.
As we have expanded incentives to balance our heavy regulation, we have sought additional funding from outside sources. Over the past two years, we have accessed more than $2 million in state, federal and private grants. We have endeavored to rebalance these revenues in the face of potentially dwindling valuations, whether that comes through legislation or through market forces. Our property tax levy authority includes a 4.5 cent base, a 1-cent special levy authority, and this 3-cent levy authority that LB 98 would extend.
At 6.35 cents, it is true that our NRD has amongst the highest property tax levies in the state. We are neither proud nor ashamed of that fact. It is also true that we carry no debt, nor have we instituted an occupation tax, and of that levy, for this fiscal year, only 0.8 cents is attributable to this levy authority. Our directors are all property owners in our District. They have never passed a budget without weighing implications for property owners, nor have I recommended expenditures without doing the same. We weigh those impacts against goals and obligations that we are mandated to meet under the IMP.
This local control and determination of what revenues are necessary to meet those state mandates is a big part of what makes the NRD system the envy of other states.
This last fiscal year, we budgeted close to $3.5 million solely on reducing consumptive use of water in this NRD to ensure compliance with the IMP. These activities include the aforementioned incentive programs, cost-share programs, technology/efficiency improvements, water leasing and water retirement. These activities are paid for, in part, with this special levy authority; we are funding our remaining activities through our general levy authority, and leverage our state and federal grant programs to offset remaining necessary expenditures.
The regulatory scheme and the investments I’ve described here are made possible, in part, through this levy authority and have paid big dividends. While we are currently ramping up our Integrated Management Planning efforts for the second increment, we are very happy with our position, as we will be working toward an unnamed goal in that increment that potentially will be an exponential increase over our first-increment goals.
The “sunsetting” of this levy authority, particularly in the face of massive cutbacks in state and federal funding for grant programs and the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Program, is shortsighted and a head in the sand approach. In order to continue to do the good work that we are doing in meeting our obligations, this sunsetting will require this District and those that are similarly situated to do one of the following things:
1) scale back our incentive programs to a level that is not beneficial, as Sen. Groene has suggested;
2) seek revenues through an occupation tax that would put an undue burden solely on irrigated agriculture;
3) expand regulation to the point where it is harmful to the economic conditions of the district. None of these are ideal, and could potentially make it impossible to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Our directors don’t want the security of a jug of whiskey, Sen. Groene. They want to be able to make the local decisions necessary to meet unfunded mandates that were passed in Lincoln. That is, after all, their job.
Sen. Groene was wrong in his July 27 and July 30 columns, and he and his anti-tax colleagues were wrong when they killed LB 98 in the last legislative session.
LB 98 was supported by the vast majority of members of the Legislature. It provides for local solutions to an unfunded state mandate. I know from the 2014 Omaha World Herald article that citizen Groene was in favor of local control for local issues, and I would wager that Sen. Groene and his colleagues would still describe themselves as in favor of local control and further describe themselves as pro-agriculture.
Their actions, and Sen. Groene’s column, tell a different story.
-- John Berge, General Manager, North Platte Natural Resources District, headquartered in Scottsbluff