2021 Leg Session, Gold Dome, Politics, Sherrie Peif, TABOR, Taxes, Water

New fee-funded water enterprise bill raises eyebrows; detractors see a disregard for voter consent

Update: On March 4, Complete Colorado learned this bill will now go to voters, more information can be found by clicking here.

DENVER — A bill being sponsored by Republican Sen. Don Coram that would provide financing to water providers for myriad things, lacks support by some who would otherwise support an idea for more revenue to fund water storage in Colorado.

The biggest issue with Senate Bill 21-034, brought by the southwestern Colorado senator, is it proposes a new enterprise fund, funded by a new fee that detractors see as being in conflict with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR).

TABOR is amendment to the Colorado Constitution that, among other things, requires voter approval for new or increased taxes, as well as limiting growth of a portion of the state’s budget to a formula of population growth plus inflation.

“We haven’t had a chance to look at the bill yet, so our board hasn’t taken a formal position yet,” said Marty Neilson of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, whose primary goal is to support and protect TABOR. “But just hearing the first sentence, I can tell you it is not something we will support.”

That first sentence in the summary reads: “Concerning the creation of an enterprise that is exempt from the requirements of section 20 of article X of the state constitution to administer a fee-based water resources financing program.”

Section 20 article X is the guiding structure behind TABOR.

Don Coram

The bill comes even after Colorado voters in 2020 again strengthened their resolve for not allowing lawmakers to raise taxes, or now fees, without asking them first by passing Proposition 117. Prop 117 requires voter approval on any new fee or surcharge supporting an enterprise fund where the revenue generated is greater than $100 million within the first five fiscal years.

Coram did not return a request for comment from Complete Colorado.

SB 034 does not have a fiscal note attached to it yet, so it is not clear if it would fall under  Prop 117. However, some who would likely support raises in revenues for water storage say, unless voters are asked and unless the bill brings more water to the people, they won’t get behind it.

Former Rep. Bill Jerke, a Weld County Republican who was behind the effort to pass sports-book gambling in Colorado to raise additional water funds, said he’d be more than willing to pay the fee, if it was done properly, but only if it was sent to voters for approval.

“The people have to decide, not Don Coram,” Jerke said. “Prop 117 was about strengthening TABOR not watering it down. I haven’t taken a look at the bill yet, but if it has anything to do with conservation, feasibility or anything that doesn’t actually develop wet water, that will be a big disqualifier for me.”

The bill would fund exactly those things.

According to the summary of the bill it would: “Provide, and a water provider may use, the financing only: In connection with the provision of raw water, drinking water, or wastewater treatment; and for feasibility studies, consulting, planning, permitting, and construction of infrastructure and water conservation projects and related recreational, hydroelectric, and flood control facilities, including necessary enlargement and rehabilitation of facilities but excluding maintenance and operation of facilities.”

It would be funded by a 25-cent surcharge on drinking water usage per 1,000 gallons over the first 4,000 used each month.

“I’d probably pay for it if it were a well-designed bill to actually develop wet water for people and storage,” Jerke said. “But not for more studies for conservation. You can’t conserve your way out of this. People who want the agricultural industry to conserve, don’t understand ag. It takes real wet water to grow crops in the arid west.”

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