State Sen. Tom Carlson and his Unicameral colleagues will face not only a wave of new bills in the 2013 session, but they will do their work with at least nine new senators. Term limits have pushed out of office nine legislators.
Carlson, who spoke at the Nebraska Agribusiness Club just days before the session began, said six committee chairmanship posts also will be up for election.
The state senator from Holdrege represents District 38 and has a keen interest in water legislation. "Water is the lifeblood of agriculture," he said.
Irrigation was a life-saver in the 2012 drought for many producers, keeping agriculture profitable, he said, and helped protect the state's economy. "However, if the drought continues, we'll start the 2013 season with little or no soil moisture."
Thus, the state can expect groundwater declines and even declines in the water level of domestic wells, which did occur in 2012 in parts of Nebraska due to irrigation withdrawals.
"Some areas of Nebraska are experiencing serious groundwater depletions. We've got to manage our groundwater for agriculture and other uses," he said.
He credited irrigators for adopting technologies and practices that result in less irrigation water pumped per acre. But there are water issues statewide and significant dollars are needed to solve those issues, according to Carlson.
He estimated water funding needs in Nebraska at about $50 to $60 million annually. Carlson cited the legislation in 2011 that dedicated one quarter of 1% of the state sales to road improvement projects across Nebraska, an amount that would raise about $60 million annually starting this year. "We need to find ways to come up with that same amount for water. Water issues are statewide so we need everyone, urban and rural, to step forward."
Referring to the roads funding law that becomes effective this year, Carlson says that if there is no increase in revenue to offset that dedication of sales tax, all state agencies will need to adjust downward their budgets. "The state gas tax is not doing it for roads."
The session could be dominated by issues such as state aid to schools and how to fairly fund the state's school system.
"About half the school districts in Nebraska will get no state aid in 2013 because of higher property tax valuations," he said. "It's not fair for citizens in those districts have to pay sales and income taxes to the state and then have that money redirected to other school districts."
The state's education system relies too heavily on local property tax, he added.
Carlson said he expects legislation in 2013 that would seek to move the Nebraska Corn Board from a state government agency to a "quasi-government" agency. It is a way to improve efficiency and avoid considerable red tape. If such as bill is introduced, Carlson said it likely will carry a provision to allow corn produces to elect board members rather than have the governor appoint them.