For both Kansas groundwater and budget surplus, using too much too fast invites disaster

February 22, 2022 1:56 pm

Kansas boasts both essential groundwater and a budget surplus, writes Clay Wirestone. But lawmakers shouldn’t treat either resource lightly. (Getty Images)

Let’s talk about resources.

Two of the most vital for Kansas right now are a natural resource, water, and an unnatural one, money. We send legislators off to Topeka to manage the state’s money, and occasionally they have something to say about the water as well. Put aside, for a moment, arguments about critical race theory and COVID-19 that swirl throughout the Capitol. How lawmakers handle these precious resources will determine the future of every Kansan.

We can dip our toes in the water first. Kansas Reflector’s Allison Kite laid out the stakes in a startling story Sunday.

“Parts of the aquifer in far western Kansas may only have 10 years of water left,” she wrote. “Small towns are struggling to provide clean drinking water, and upgrading their facilities would bankrupt them.”

Rep. Ron Highland, chairman of the House Water Committee, has tackled the problem head on and introduced a potentially transformational bill that would create a Kansas Department of Water and Environment, raise water use fees and add standards for the districts that manage groundwater throughout Kansas. The stakes couldn’t be higher: Agriculture and communities throughout the state depend on the dwindling resource.

The bill faces headwinds. The water districts don’t like it, and agricultural behemoths the Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Livestock Association and the Kansas Corngrowers Association also oppose it. Their profits depend on ample, affordable water.

On the other hand, if we pump the aquifer dry, what future does much of Kansas have?

The dry bed of the Arkansas River near the Santa Fe Trail crossing at Cimarron. The Ogallala aquifer groundwater levels in much of western Kansas started dropping in the 1950s as pumping increased, according to the Kansas Geological Survey. (Max McCoy)

As Rep. Rui Xu wrote on Twitter after Kite’s story: “There’re lots of small squabbles in the legislature, but few bills a year that Actually Matter long term. This would be one of them.”

Speaking of resources, we can now turn to the green kind that doesn’t grow on trees.

Thanks to prudent fiscal measures taken in the wake of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax “experiment,” our state now has an astonishing $2.9 billion budget surplus. Think of all the amazing things we can do with that cash!

Legislators have been thinking about it. So have Gov. Laura Kelly and her likely opponent in this fall’s gubernatorial election, Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

Thus far a $1 billion-plus law meant to attract a mystery megaproject has passed. A Senate bill ending the state’s sales tax of food would cost $319.8 million next year alone. Another Senate bill voted out of committee yesterday would increase the state’s standard income tax deduction, and cost $23.4 million in 2024, $78.4 million in 2025 and $79.1 million in 2026. Schmidt has supported a measure that would send $1 billion from the surplus to the state’s retirement fund. And that’s just a start.

You begin to see the problem, right? Kansas only has so many surplus dollars to pump from the aquifer of our state treasury. If we attract that giant development project, cut the sales tax on food and fund retiree pensions — all measures that would unquestionably benefit the state — we will have depleted much of that sum. I haven’t even mentioned funding our schools to keep up with inflation.

Kansas should use that budget surplus to make people’s lives better. Absolutely. We face real needs and can reap real benefits.

But the supply of dollars, like the supply of groundwater, isn’t infinite. Let’s use both wisely.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.