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Water, Water Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Appropriate

A proposed pipeline from Lake Powell (pictured) to St. George could use funds from sales tax revenue under HB 174.

By Andrea Smardon

Salt Lake City, UT – Lawmakers may be debating a bill that would earmark sales taxes for water project funds. House Bill 174 has lawmakers questioning the way we pay for water in the state and the use of earmarks in general.

The bill's sponsor Republican Patrick Painter of Nephi says water projects are an essential part of Utah's infrastructure, but are only a small portion of the state budget.

"We're going to need to put as much water development infrastructure in the ground in the next 30 years, as we have the last 150," said Painter, "If you look at the exponential growth rates in the state, we're going to go from 3 million people to 5 million people. We need to step it up to keep up with demand."

Painter expects that water projects will cost 6 billion dollars over the next 30 years. But how to pay for that is in dispute. The bill proposes earmarking 15 percent of sales tax revenue growth for water development - which would amount to more than 70 million dollars a year. Speaker of the House Rebecca Lockhart says she's not sure statewide sales taxes are the best way to fund water projects.

"I think we ought to look very closely at the policy of whether or not the end users of the water should be paying for the development of the water," said Lockhart.

Painter says most of the projects funded would be loans that would have to be paid back to the state. One of the largest water projects that would potentially draw on these funds is the development of a pipeline from Lake Powell to St George. Christy Nuffer is with Citizens for Dixie's Future - a grassroots organization that is opposed to the pipeline. She spoke out against the bill in committee.

"It's an unfair burden to ask the entire state to provide an earmark that would support this," said Nuffer, "We need to look and re-evaluate and say, can Washington County do better? What can Washington County do to avoid this earkmark that would impact all Utahns?"

Democratic Representative Joel Briscoe says the figures that he's seen suggest that Washington County is using more than their fair share of water.

"For the same summer usage - Tucson uses 60 percent less water than the average Washington County home, Denver and Phoenix 35 percent less water on average - because they have pricing points that indicates to these users that the more you use, the more you're going to pay," said Briscoe, "If my data is accurate, it raises the question for me about whether or not we're being asked to put a billion dollars out so that people can have green lawns."

Senate President Michael Waddoups and others have indicated that they have lost their appetite for earmarks after dedicating 30 percent of sales tax revenue growth last year for transportation. Whether the bill will even get to the Senate is in question now. It's currently tabled in rules committee and has yet been put to a vote in the House. Representative Painter says he has been talking to lawmakers the possibility of capping the transportation earmark and dedicating the spillover to water development.

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