Water and taxes head list of Texas legislative issues

Water and taxes: Texas farmers have too little of one and too much of the other.

But state lawmakers say those issues will attract a lot of attention during their next legislative session as a revenue-strapped government tries to balance a budget, reduce property taxes by as much as 50 percent and still reform the state's school finance program.

State and Federal legislators were on hand recently at the Third Annual Texas Commodity Symposium in Amarillo to discuss these and other issues on the political horizon.

“We need to make sure we go into our next session prepared for school finance,” said stare representative Rick Hardcastle, Vernon, chairman of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. “And we have a lot of water issues in the state that remain unsettled.”

Representative David Swinford, Dumas, who represents agriculture and rural Texas interests on a school finance reform committee, said after some 250 hours of meetings the committee has accomplished “zero. I have no good news from that committee,” he said. “Well, actually, we have not done anything yet, so that may be considered good news.”

He said the last legislative session was “a session from hell. We are charged with balancing the budget without new taxes. We've known the school finance issue was coming for several years, so we formed an ag policy board to prepare.”

Swinford said Commissioner of Agriculture Susan Combs, Hardcastle and others have met to get figures together on what taking away agriculture's tax exemptions and valuation formula would do to the state's farm sector.

“We can't afford to give up those tax exemptions,” he said. “Right now, we don't know where we're going. We have to determine how much money we need (for school finance reform) and then determine how to raise it.”

The balancing act becomes more difficult with the legislature's desire to reduce property taxes by 75 percent or 50 percent. That takes a lot of money out of state coffers, Swinford said.

“We've looked at other revenue sources and if we increase sales taxes, some counties on state lines will lose business to other states. For any angle we consider, we find trade-offs.” (A state income tax has been nixed.)

Swinford and Hardcastle emphasize that agriculture is too important to the state's economy to be hamstrung by ill-conceived changes in the tax structure.

“Agriculture puts $72 billion a year into the state's economy. That's 10 percent of the total. No other industry contributes that much. Agriculture is a dynamic force in this state's economy, even with just 2 percent of the population involved in production agriculture,” Swinford said.

“If school finance was easy, we would have already done it. It's important, especially to small communities, but the state legislature has not had serious debate on the issue since 1991. We have 120 members of the House who have never debated school finance and more than 50 percent of Senators have never taken it up.”

Education will be crucial to holding on to agriculture's exemptions, Swinford said.

“We'll win the argument with logical facts that can be packaged in 30-second sound bites. That's what we're working on. And we have to maintain our credibility. If one association is discredited in this discussion, we all lose.”

Hardcastle said the general mood in the state legislature is that agriculture should take a 60 percent cut while all other agencies take 6 percent. “We had 310 amendments offered to the budget last session, amendments that took money out of agriculture and put it somewhere else. That all happened on the day the bill came up for a vote.”

Hardcastle said the rural contingency was able to fight those off, but ag still took some hits.

He's particularly concerned with cuts to the Texas animal health service, grain inspection, and Texas Extension and research programs. “We're charged with providing the safest, most consistent and cheapest food supply in the world, but the public and many legislators don't understand agriculture.”

He said rural counties voiced displeasure at losing Extension agents to the budget ax. “The Extension service is working to maintain the same level of service with fewer people,” he said. “Some of my constituents are not happy about the cuts.”

He also said the public does not understand the need for university research. “I'm finding thinking across the state that big companies are performing enough applied agricultural research. But those companies look at the big picture and not the day-to-day applications.”

Hardcastle turned to water issues and said the prospect of moving water across basins and out of rural areas concerns farmers and small communities that depend on underground water supplies.

And he said no solution seemed imminent for Mexico's refusal to abide by a 1944 water treaty that allocates water from the Rio Grande for use in South Texas.

“Commissioner Combs has done yeoman's duty keeping this issue alive,” Hardcastle said. “But we see no movement from Mexico. Some would say solutions are simple. If they don't deliver, simply cut off the water we send them (from Lake Meade into Baja). But an international treaty is involved. Meantime, water is a matter of survival for south Texas farmers.”

“This is an issue that's appropriate for the federal government,” said Randy Neugebauer, U.S. Congressman from Lubbock. “The issue is complex, related to trade and our relationship with Mexico, which points out the need to study the issue and find ways to get Mexico to allocate more water.

“It has to be frustrating for south Texas farmers. Water is a critical resource for agriculture.”

Neugebauer, a member of the U.S. house agriculture committee, said another key issue for the U.S. Congress will be “preservation of the farm bill. We see constant movements to tweak it, especially with payment limitations.”

He's also interested in a recent study by the federal government on the Ogallala aquifer and insists that management should fall to states and not federal agencies. “We have water districts within states that do a better job of managing water resources than the federal government,” he said. “I think the feds can recommend best management practices and encourage conservation, but leave management to the states involved.”

Neugebauer said making certain the Risk Management Agency “is an effective tool for farmers,” remains a high priority.

The annual conference, sponsored by the Texas Wheat Producers Association, the Texas Grain Sorghum Association, the Corn Producers Association of Texas and the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., is held in conjunction with the Amarillo Farm Show.

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