By: Danielle Kaeding, WPR
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is circulating a bill that would create a clean water fund that would pay for water quality initiatives.
The fund was among several water issues discussed during a panel discussion Wednesday with Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, and Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, and hosted by the Wisconsin Water Alliance.
The two lawmakers served as the leaders of a water quality task force and recently unveiled a $10 million package of bills to improve water quality.
As part of the task force recommendations, they suggested lawmakers consider establishing a sustainable funding source for water quality projects.
The bill, which has yet to be formally introduced, would create a $10 million trust fund and a joint committee that would make recommendations on how the money should be spent. Shankland said any agency, individual or organization could apply to receive funding for water quality projects.
"When we’re talking about cleaning up massive contamination whether it’s nitrate or PFAS, we’re looking at billions of dollars over the long-term," Shankland said. "I think we can all agree that we need to find a sustainable solution for that."
Novak said lawmakers shouldn’t be addressing funding needs for water quality issues every budget cycle.
"We need a sustainable fund so when issues come up or we need to pass a bill that we can go to the clean water fund," he said.
Both Novak and Shankland are backing the legislation, as well as Marinette Republican Rep. John Nygren. Residents of the lawmaker’s district have been struggling with PFAS contamination or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances that spread from the use of firefighting foam at Tyco Fire Products’ fire training facility in Marinette. The so-called "forever chemicals" don’t break down easily in the environment and may pose harmful health effects.
However, Novak said lawmakers are still determining how to pay for the measure. He said Minnesota funds water projects through a three-eighths of 1 percent sales tax, but quickly added there’s "no appetite" among lawmakers to utilize a sales tax to support the fund.
Shankland said lawmakers could follow Ohio’s lead and use a mix of funding sources to support its creation. She added a portion of the excise tax could also be used to pay for the fund.
The draft legislation proposes transferring money from the general fund in addition to money collected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and state Department of Justice through settlement agreements.
Lawmakers Hope For Passage Of Task Force Bills
The proposals introduced by the water quality task force don’t have much time to be taken up by lawmakers with the end of the current session looming. Novak said he expects the Assembly to pass the bills and legislators are working with their partners in the Senate to gain approval.
"I think one thing that may help us a bit is the new revenue estimates because the Senate — some of the senators are concerned with finances," Novak said.
The state is expected to collect $818 million more in tax revenue than previously expected, according to recently released estimates from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Shankland said the measures are a first step in addressing the state’s water quality issues. However, she noted Democrats want to see more funding devoted to promoting clean water.
"My hope is let’s work together. Let’s get this through the Senate after we get it through the Assembly. Let’s be thoughtful and collaborative across (parties)," she said. "But, this can only be the start because the demand is so great."
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has said he supports the water quality measures. Alec Zimmerman, a spokesperson for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon regarding the proposals’ chances of passage in the state Senate.