For Texas lawmakers: Budget deficit, water top priorities

Oddly enough, water does not occupy the top spot on Texas legislators' agenda as the body meets this month.

“The No. 1 priority will be the budget,” says Woody Anderson, a Mitchell County farmer and chairman of the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee for Agriculture and Livestock.

Anderson discussed his committee's work during the recent Texas Commodity Symposium in Amarillo.

“The budget shortfall will get a lot of attention from this session of the Texas legislature,” Anderson said. “Depending on whose numbers you believe. the deficit could range from $3 billion to $5 billion, or from $10 billion to $12 billion. Every segment of the government will be looking for budget relief.”

Agriculture, he said, will not be exempt, but he hopes the cuts are not deep enough to cripple the industry. Of particular concern to rural areas and the overall state economy are tax issues, Anderson said.

“We expect the legislature to look hard at sales tax and agricultural use exemptions.” He said exemptions for agriculture go back a long way, all the way to the Texas Constitution.

“Property tax exemptions deserve some scrutiny and ought to be considered for productivity value exemptions instead of the old usage title,” he said. Exemptions on property tax for agricultural use go back to 1979, he said.

Eliminating that exemption would play havoc with rural economies without offering significant relief to the state's deficit.

“The state lost only $1.1 billion in taxes through this exemption in 2001. Compare that to the $1.5 billion loss from the Homestead Exemption that many Texans receive. And compared to the overall budget, it's insignificant, less than one percent of the total.

“But if the exemption is eliminated, it will wreak havoc on the farm economy and on rural Texas.”

Anderson said water, although not the main concern of this legislative session, may be the second, third and fourth priorities.

“We have a number of players interested in water legislation,” he said. “We want to make certain that local control, through underground water districts, remains the guideline for water management in the state.”

He said regulatory issues to watch include Total Maximum Daily Limits, point and non-point pollution standards and a process that allows citizens to collect evidence against suspected polluters and make a case against them.

Water users should be aware of compliance rules, Anderson said. “Those looking for remediation will find more attentive ears if they have a history of compliance.”

He said improving infrastructure to increase water use efficiency will be a key issue. “We also expect more interest in brush control, especially efforts to eradicate invasive species.”

He said the Texas legislature likely would not take action against Mexico to force compliance with the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty, which Mexico has ignored for more than a decade.

“But I expect our legislators will discuss the issue thoroughly. State leadership will make recommendations to the Federal Government but I don't anticipate any legislation issuing from Texas.”

Anderson said the “right of capture” rule has been a “sacrosanct” element of Texas water laws for years but may be subject to discussion as the state wrestles with a growing demand for water, especially from metropolitan areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

Other issues that could affect rural Texans include animal health concerns, insurance liabilities, and workmen's compensation. “And this short list doesn't really scratch the surface of the legislature's agenda,” he said.

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