SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative effort to divert a portion of the state's sales tax revenue to help finance water development projects passed a committee Wednesday to move on to the Utah Senate for full consideration.
The 5-2 endorsement of SB80 sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, did not come without concerns voiced by some lawmakers over the viability of big-ticket proposals like the Lake Powell pipeline or the Bear River development project.
"You are setting up a fund to build projects, and we have had no discussion today about those projects and that kind of disturbs me a bit," said Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City. "There are some significant concerns about building a dam and diverting a river."
Knudson was joined by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, in voting against recommending the bill.
Several supporters joined Adams to stress that the diversion of one-sixteenth of every cent of sales tax revenue that had been going to the transportation fund is not a state committment to build any single project but a mechanism to provide financing for water infrastructure needs in general.
"This is not the last action this body will take to authorize any project going forward," said Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. "This is not D-Day in terms of making decisions on water projects, for which I am grateful. … We welcome the process."
Over the years, the state has committed money to pay for transportation projects and schools, Adams said, while the needs for water development — including maintenance and replacement — have gone wanting.
"Water has been neglected," he said. "The question is: How do we fund water? We have a great need for water projects."
Adams' measure would divert a portion of sales tax revenue already being collected from the state transportation fund to a fund he established last year with a $5 million appropriation. It would generate $35.8 million in the coming fiscal year and produce another $1.8 million in fiscal year 2018.
Several groups, including Voices for Utah Children, the Utah Rivers Council and the Great Basin Water Network, urged defeat of the bill, asserting it ignored concerns highlighted in a legislative audit over the state's adequacy of long-range planning for water development and calculations on the amount of water available.
"There is plenty of time to pass this bill because we are not running out of water," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.
Voices for Utah Children came out opposed to earmark spending in general, while the League of Women Voters went on record opposed to the Lake Powell pipeline and Bear River development projects.
Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, said he had strong concerns because of the legislative audit, but he said it raises issues that deserve a larger debate.
"I think this is so big the entire Senate needs to weigh in on this," Shiozawa said. "I don't think this is the time to terminate any discussion on this."
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said the merits of the Lake Powell pipeline or Bear River development projects should be saved for a discussion another day, not Adams' bill.
"I am glad that this bill does not create any bonding obligations. I am glad that this bill does not obligate us to any project. Those are heavy discussions we need to have in another setting," Dayton said.