By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- The two Republicans on the six-member Ways and Means Natural Resources Subcommittee recently opposed the budget bill for the Oregon Water Resources Department.
Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, said he voted "no" because the budget bill is backed by fee increases that are unwarranted.
Thomsen, a Hood River pear grower, said the department's request for 13 percent increase in water transaction fees this year -- an increase that scales down to 2 percent in subsequent years -- will leave the department vulnerable to what are known as funding "sweeps" by lawmakers.
Lawmakers in the past have swept fee-generated funds to supplement the state's general fund when fee-funded packages build to excess.
Thomsen said that could happen to funds generated by OWRD's water transaction fees in the coming biennium, as an improved economy spurs more use of the transaction programs.
"If they get a big pot of money, the Legislature can come in in two years and sweep those funds," Thomsen said.
"I just thought that (the 13-percent increase) was a real big reach," he said.
The subcommittee on June 10 advanced to the full Ways and Means Committee a department budget of $53.3 million.
The budget is a slight increase from the $51.6 million legislatively approved 2011-13 budget, and increases staff from 144 in the current biennium to 154 in 2013-15.
The budget includes $27.2 million in general funds, up from $20.6 million in 2011-13; $10.6 million in fees; and $13.6 million in grants for advancing water supply development projects.
An additional $10 million in lottery-backed loans for water supply development could be made available by the state, but is not included in the department's budget bill.
Thomsen said the department's budget packages are aimed more at protecting fish and water quality than benefiting farmers and ranchers.
"If you look at the new packages, they are for fish studies, they are for water studies, they are for water monitoring," Thomsen said. "It is not to benefit users.
"It is not how can we use less water, let's develop some sprinkler systems, let's do some innovative things to help conserve water," he said. "It is to monitor our water, to make sure it is clean, that kind of thing, instead of to help users."
Others contend the packages could provide several benefits for users in new water supply development funds and in a $750,000 grant fund that can be used to develop new water supply development feasibility studies.
Phil Ward, director of the department, characterized the budget as "a good solid budget."
"It provides some strategic enhancements that will help us do our job better," he said.
Lawmakers this session scrapped a controversial new water right management fee that the department estimated would have generated $5 million annually once fully implemented.
The budget is scheduled to go before the full Ways and Means Committee June 14.