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Guest editorial: Is clean water a legislative priority?

That dull thud sound you hear is the clean water funding can being kicked down the legislative road.
After rejecting the governor’s plan to use revenue from estate and property tax revenues, Democrats in the House and Senate fought over dueling funding sources with the House proposing a tax on cloud computing and veterinary supplies, and the Senate suggesting an increase in the rooms and meals tax from 9 to 10 percent. Howls of protest erupted over both and support withered. 
Despite the fact that clean water has been identified as one of the state’s key objectives (and one mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency), legislators have been unable to commit to a dedicated funding source even as the session’s end drew close.
An announcement by the Joint Fiscal Office that the state expected a $55 million budget surplus saved the day. Suddenly, Legislators saw the largesse as their way out. They could use the extra tax revenue to fill the $7 million gap needed to fund the clean up for a year, which would also mean not having to raise any tax, or to cut elsewhere. Everybody wins.
For the moment.
It’s reasonable to assume a $50 million-plus overage is enough to take care of next year’s funding needs, which is the assumption legislators are making, but they have still not identified a source of dedicated funding to meet future needs, needs that will extend for another two decades.
That means legislators will need to tap $10 million to $15 million from the General Fund to meet the clean water program’s obligations each year. Because they is no dedicated fund, legislators will find themselves embroiled in the same debate next year, and the various clean water programs will do battle with the hundreds of other programs competing for the same dollars.
This is why budget writers don’t generate budgets based on lofty revenue forecasts. Too often they don’t pan out.
It’s true legislators don’t have to dedicate a funding source for a program to be funded. But it helps. Immeasurably. To pretend otherwise is pure sophistry. Legislators know that.
What we can expect was articulated by Sen. Ann Cummings, chair of the Senate Finance Committee: “If the revenues don’t continue to grow, and they probably won’t over the lifespan of cleaning up the lake, we will have to find additional revenue.” 
That’s not a maybe. It’s a dead certainly. We’re over 10 years into a bull market. Not only can we expect a recession at some point, we can also depend on continued budget pressures. The circumstances that gave us the $55 million surplus are also capable of giving us a $55 million deficit. Priorities also change. What seems essential in one political moment isn’t the next.
This understanding should drive our legislators to commit to a dedicated funding source, as they had been trying to do for the past couple of years. Otherwise, we will flit from one year to the next cobbling things together, putting at risk our need to clean the state’s waters. The surplus let legislators off the hook this year, but a dedicated funding source is what voters should demand, lest we keep kicking the can down the road, again and again.
Emerson Lynn 

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