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June 4, 2002     (512) 463-0300

Water Advisory Council Reviews the Future of a Vital Resource

AUSTIN - The Texas Water Advisory Council heard a wide range of issues regarding Texas water supplies today, June 4, 2002. Several council members had opening remarks including Land Commissioner David Dewhurst who said there was no indication of terrorist activity in Texas. Senator David Bernsen urged that Texas water policies not favor any region of the state over another. Representatives David Counts and Gary Walker also urged the fair distribution of water.

Other members had opening comments as well. Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) member Kathleen White said that the pressure for more water is greater than ever across the state. Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) Commissioner Joseph Fitzsimmons said that watershed management is important...and sometimes overlooked. Ruth Schiermeyer, public member-surface water, said we need a combination of short-term and long-term solutions. Manuel Ibanez, public member-environment, said we need to emphasize water conservation while James Box, public member-groundwater, encouraged better security at water supply plants.

State agencies then briefed the council. Margaret Hoffman from the TNRCC said the agency is helping in the homeland security effort. The Parks and Wildlife Department reported that they are doing everything that can be done to protect the hunting and fishing resources that they deal with. Kevin Ward from the Texas Water Development Board said that the water planning process at his agency is moving forward, creating partnerships to aquire new water resources.

Andrew Shea from Poseidon Resources and Ed Archuleta from the El Paso Public Service Board spoke on desalination, saying that taking fresh water from either the Gulf of Mexico or other brackish water was being actively studied. James Moore from the Texas Soil and Water Conservation Board spoke on how brush control can help conserve water.

George Bomar, meterologist with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation briefed the council on the current state of cloud seeding, an attempt to trigger rain from existing clouds. There are currently eleven such projects in west and south Texas. Carole Baker and Allan Jones from the Texas Water Resources Institute briefed the council on conservation efforts.

Jeb Boyt and John Barrett of the Coastal Coordination Council described their council's efforts to conserve water in the coastal area, which is made up of eighteen coastal counties in Texas. Dean Robbins from the Texas Water Conservation Association spoke on how the thirteen hundred water districts in Texas are working to conserve and efficiently use water. Walt Sears of the Northeast Texas Municipal Water District described how their small district in northeast Texas manages surface water. Other public officials from the area told of other problems small towns have had with getting good water. Mark Vickery of the TNRCC then updated the council on that agency's surface water regulations.

The Texas Water Advisory Council is chaired by Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown. Members include Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, General Land Office Commissioner David Dewhurst, Commissioner Kathleen White of the TNRCC, Senator David Bernsen, Representatives David Counts, Gary Walker and Ron Lewis, Jack Hunt of the Texas Water Development Board, Commissioner Joseph Fitzsimmons of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and public members James Box, Manuel Ibanez and Ruth Schiermeyer. The council recessed subject to call of the chair with its next meeting to be announced at a later date.

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More Talk about Taxes in Texas

AUSTIN - The Senate Subcommittee on the Tax System met at the Capitol on June 4, 2002, to review the Finance Committee's first interim charge. The lieutenant governor ordered the committee to survey and assess Texas' current tax system, including taxation authority given to units of local government. The report to the 78th Legislature should identify the economic value associated with all current taxes, as well as current exemptions and abatements.

The first panel of invited testimony included John Keel from the Legislative Budget Board and Eleanor Kim from the Comptroller of Public Accounts Office. Both are members of a working committee composed of representatives from 23 states in the nation. The group is trying to reach an interstate agreement to streamline state sales taxes, looking for more uniformity and simplicity among the states. The group will meet in Seattle next July to draw the final report. If approved by the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, the changes would take effect on December 2005. The compact would greatly benefit national retailers like Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney, who would save significant amounts in administrative costs by having uniform taxes. Promoters of the compact say Texas would stop losing the $150 million on catalog sales taxes, and $170 million on Internet sales taxes that it is losing now. If approved, Texas will continue to exempt residential utilities, but local municipalities would still be able to tax them. Not all committee members were sold on the idea. Some wonder if Texas would not loose after all, being so dependent on sales taxes.

The second panel included members of the Comptroller of Public Accounts Office. They gave the senators a brief revenue update, including franchise tax collections, and lawsuits with revenue implications for the office. The state has collected $1.42 billion from the franchise tax this year.

Gasoline and diesel fuel taxes was the issue discussed by the third panel, with representatives of the Comptroller of Public Accounts Office. Texans pay 20 cents per gallon of gasoline and diesel in taxes, except for transport companies. Counties retain 5 per cent of this amount. A reliable source of revenue, most of its proceeds go to upkeep and build roads, with 5 per cent going to education. Environmental groups giving public testimony proposed to tax the fuel at different rates depending on the sulfur content in them, as it has been done in countries like Ireland. This should help the state comply with environmental regulations and encourage people to buy cars that pollute less. They oppose raising gas taxes in general because this is an already regressive tax --everybody pays the same independently of their income. Besides, they say, it is proven than increasing gasoline prices does not discourage driving.

Other public testimony disagreed, proposing to raise fuel taxes by 50 cents. They cited the deteriorating conditions of Texas' transportation infrastructure. They also pointed out that gasoline in the U.S. is much cheaper than in Europe and Japan.

The next debated issue was cigarette and tobacco taxes, at 44 cents per pack of cigarettes. All the money collected from this tax goes to the general revenue. The money collected has not varied much in the last years --the population keeps growing but fewer people smoke. The comptroller's office suggested to increase this tax in one dollar. Texas is number 22 among the states in terms of the taxes charged on tobacco products. New York, for example, charges $1.11 per pack. Senator Zaffirini, chair of the Committee on Health Services, agreed, saying the higher price will equate to fewer children smoking. This is a tax increase, witnesses agreed, that Texans will support.

Raising wine, beer and mixed drinks' taxes was also proposed. Alcohol kills more teens than any other drug, legal or illegal. As with tobacco, raising the price will affect consumption. Witnesses talked about the high alcohol consumption among college students, and about the problem of drinking and driving. The "Twinkies Tax" was also looked at, as created in California with the intention of curving obesity problems. Representatives of the Comptroller office said that although Texans already pay taxes for soda drinks at the consumer level, this new tax would charge the distributor. The tax paid by distributors would most likely be passed on to consumers, increasing the price of the popular drinks. If approved, this tax will increase money in Texas' coffers by approximately $180 million a year.

The Senate Interim Committee on Finance is chaired by Senator Rodney Ellis and co-chaired by Senator Chris Harris. The other members include Gonzalo Barrientos, Robert Duncan, Troy Fraser, Mike Jackson, Jon Lindsay, Eddie Lucio Jr., Steve Ogden, Todd Staples, Carlos Truan, John Whitmire, Judith Zaffirini. The subcommittee recessed subject to the call of its chair.

You can access the archived video webcast from the web page of the Finance Committee.

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