DENVER - Rural lawmakers beat back several fee increases for water users Tuesday, leaving state water administrators $2.5 million short next year.
The Legislature's budget committee wanted to increase well fees to $665 starting March 1, a dramatic and sudden jump from the current $100. Senate Bill 216 was the last and most controversial part of the budget-balancing package for the 2008-09 year.
Rural lawmakers forced the bill to be sent to the House Agriculture Committee, which voted 9-4 against the fees Tuesday.
Instead, the bill now takes about $530,000 out of the Governor's Energy Office to make up this year's deficit in the State Engineer's Office, which administers water rights.
The Legislature started sending money to the Governor's Energy Office in 2006 to pay for low-income people to weatherize their homes. The office has about $500,000 it hasn't spent this year, said Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee.
In part, it was a philosophical debate about who should pay for the State Engineer's Office - water rights owners or the public through regular tax payments.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the public as a whole benefits from proper administration of water rights and making sure our dams are safe," said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.
But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, said it's not unfair to water users because ever since the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights in 1992, Colorado has been moving toward user fees for many government services.
"I think when you compare it to all the other things in the state that are paid for by user fees, this fits squarely in with those," Pommer said.
The fight is far from over. The full House and full Senate have to approve the Agriculture Committee's action on SB 216, and even then, the bill doesn't provide enough money to hire more water commissioners who will be needed this spring, said State Engineer Dick Wolfe.
And Wolfe's office is $2.5 million short for the next budget year, which starts July 1.
Curry's Agriculture Committee will continue to work on providing funds for the State Engineer's Office budget today.
The Colorado Water Congress supported a smaller fee increase, and several representatives said Tuesday that water fees will have to increase in the future to keep the State Engineer's Office properly funded.