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Let Edwards area voters make call

Lawmakers should authorize EARIP sales tax election.

With a crucial deadline looming, stakeholders in the Edwards Aquifer region are running against the wind as they ask lawmakers to authorize a sales tax election.

The state’s gargantuan budget woes are dominating the legislative session, and key state leaders have voiced opposition to any new taxes.

But allowing voters in the Edwards region to decide whether to tax themselves is not increasing taxes.

 

The process leading the region’s water officials to this decision was mandated by the Legislature in 2007 and is necessitated by the looming potential of federal court litigation under the Endangered Species Act.

Under state law, the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program, a regional stakeholders group, faces a Sept. 1, 2012, deadline for giving U.S. Fish and Wildlife a plan for protecting endangered species in the aquifer and aquifer-fed springs during droughts.

The long-running process stems from 1990s litigation to protect the species, and officials involved in water policy say future litigation is virtually certain if they can’t obtain an incidental takings permit from the federal agency.

The EARIP process is an effort to avoid court-imposed water management.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, plans to sponsor the legislation in the Senate. A House sponsor has not been found.

The legislation would authorize a sales tax election. Voters in the Edwards region would then be asked to decide on a proposed one-eighth-cent sales tax hike. Another eighth would be authorized by the legislation, but voters would not be asked to approve it unless a future endangered species issue requires additional funding to protect access to the aquifer.

The proposed tax would generate an estimated $30 million in annual revenue that would be used to protect the flow of aquifer-fed springs by storing water in the San Antonio Water System’s underground storage facility, financing a voluntary irrigation suspension program and enhancing the habitat of the endangered species.

EARIP officials would have to fully explain the details of the program to voters and an election likely would be held in November.

In a nod to political reality, officials are working on an allocation plan that would impose fees on pumpers and holders of downstream surface water rights as another tool for funding the recovery implementation program.

Regional water officials say the sales tax is a more equitable, manageable approach, but the fee approach could be accomplished without legislation.

We urge lawmakers to give the Edwards region voters an opportunity to decide how they want to proceed.

If a sales tax election is authorized, the vote obviously will not be a slam-dunk. The burden will be on water policy officials to convince voters of its merits.

The region’s economic future hangs in the balance, and voters deserve the opportunity to choose for themselves.

San Antonio Express News Editorial Board
Published:  Sunday, February 27, 2011