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Diverse coalition favors plan diverting $50 million in Kansas revenue to water, land conservation

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Diverse coalition favors plan diverting $50 million in Kansas revenue to water, land conservation

Feb 26, 2024 | 9:50 am ET
By Tim Carpenter
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Diverse coalition favors plan diverting $50 million in Kansas revenue to water, land conservation
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Sean Miller, a Statehouse lobbyist working with the diverse Kansans for Conservation, says the coalition proposes the state — without raising taxes — dedicate about $50 million annually to voluntary conservation programs to protect and upgrade water and land resources. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Dozens of Kansas business, farm, wildlife and nonprofit interests came together in a campaign to convince the Legislature to add Kansas to the list of 35 states with a consistent, sustainable funding source for voluntary conservation initiatives.

Their proposal is a whopper — it would make use of about $50 million annually in state revenue. That would still pale when compared to Colorado’s $120 million earmark for conservation. The Kansas coalition’s strategy wouldn’t impose new taxes, because Kansans for Conservation wanted the initiative to draw upon existing state revenue sources. In this case, it would dedicate a slice of sales tax on sporting gear, lottery receipts and sports betting revenue to conservation.

A poll of Kansans conducted a few years ago indicated 82% supported using state sales tax revenue generated by sales of hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and outdoor recreational equipment. In terms of earmarking state lottery revenue, 77% said that was fine with them. A mere 63% said it was OK to direct sports gambling revenue to conservation, but more than half of respondents fundamentally opposed legalization of sports betting.

Sean Miller, who works for the Capital Strategies lobbying group in Topeka, said introductory presentations on behalf of the coalition had been made to House and Senate agriculture committees. The objective was to begin a Statehouse conversation about conservation needs and investment options, he said.

“It is really a process of how do we maximize the productivity and the longevity of our agricultural lands, farmland and ranch lands, while also protecting our natural resources, our water resources that are so critical to both agriculture and to our municipal manufacturing and industrial sectors here in Kansas,” Miller said. “Without clean water that flows through those farming and ranch lands, we don’t have clean water reaching the municipality. So there’s a statewide reach.”

The states of Missouri, Colorado and Nebraska have constitutionally protected conservation funds and Oklahoma operates state-tribal compacts for that purpose. Those states long ago discovered state appropriations for conservation could be compounded through agreements with local government and private individuals. In addition, state funding could be used to draw upon troves of federal conservation aid currently beyond Kansas’ reach.

In the last year, Kansas had $86 million in Environmental Quality Incentive Program applications go unfunded largely because non-federal matching dollars weren’t available.

“Those dollars are going somewhere,” Miller said. “They’re going to end up flowing out of state. Maybe they go to Missouri. Maybe they go to Colorado, but they are not being put into practice here in Kansas.”

Bottom line: Kansas lagged its four neighboring states an average of $102 million in receipts through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Kansas coalition’s proposal would dedicate half of the state’s retail sales tax on recreational sporting equipment, or an estimated $18 million per year, to the conservation fund. Core annual funding would also be derived from $32 million in state lottery proceeds. In addition, $4 million in sports gambling revenue set aside help attract another professional sports franchise to Kansas could be added to the fund.

 

Coalition muscle

The coalition itself is imposing: Kansas Farm Bureau, Evergy, Kansas Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Kansas Rural Center, General Mills, Audubon of Kansas, Friends of the Kaw, Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, Bowersock Hydropower, Kansas Forestry Association, Kansas Land Trust, Kansas Soil Health Alliance and so on.

“We know that we can achieve much more working together with these organizations as we all have common goals,” said Dan Meyerhoff, executive director of the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts. “Water quantity and quality, improved soil health, drought resilience, productive rangelands and diverse wildlife habitats are critical to sustaining our family farms and ranches environmentally and economically a well as improving quality of life.”

Josh Roe, CEO of Kansas Corn Growers Association, spoke in favor of the bill during a hearing in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. He did so on behalf of his own group and the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Association of Wheat Grower.

“Currently,” Roe said, “the state is failing to provide the proper funding for this work and is subsequently losing out on federal and private matching dollars to the 35 states that have already established dedicated conservation funding.”

Kurt Ratzlaff, legislative chair of the Kansas Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the organization’s sweat equity service projects could only accomplish so much. Funding proposed in House Bill 2541 would be substantively amplified by private and federal investments. The bill provided a “rare opportunity to vote for something that will greatly benefit Kansans,” he said.

Rep. Doug Blex, an Independence Republican who worked 35 years in the conservation field in Nebraska and Kansas, said he was pleased with the notion of avoiding new taxes and was dazzled by drawing upon gambling and lottery funds.

“Utilizing existing funding and redirecting those monies to conservation is a great move,” Blex said. “Legislators who believe in being good stewards of our Lord’s creation should strongly support utilizing the ‘sin taxes’ to fund conservation practices that provide stewardship for our unique Kansas land.”

 

The objections

That’s not to say all special interests touching on land and water policy were in favor of the plan allocating the $50 million to the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, which would be responsible for distributing grants for projects statewide.

The Kansas Livestock Association would support legislation creating a Kansas conservation easement funding source, but KLA was concerned about distribution of grants related to grazing land and use of the money by the state Department of Wildlife and Parks to acquire land.

“We agree with many of the goals of the bill, and believe with some adjustments, HB 2451 could be legislation KLA supports,” said Aaron Popelka, an attorney with KLA.

Shad Sullivan, of Olney, Texas, and property rights chairman of the cattle producer trade association R-CALF USA, said statements about land protection were often nothing more than politically correct banter about placing more private land in conservation easements in perpetuity. He said he cringed whenever people at forums spoke of stakeholders, biodiversity, sustainability and ecosystem management. Those buzz words were tied to the United Nations’ agenda to undermine capitalism in the United States, he said.

He said Kansas land and business owners interested in voluntarily participating in conservation projects had access to all sorts of programs.

“This is nothing more than a government-created ‘slush fund’ funded by the citizens of Kansas who choose to participate in the state lottery,” Sullivan said.