Capitol Ideas: Lawmakers reluctant to link top priorities

No robust support for governor's water quality plan

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DES MOINES — The expression “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” could have come from the legislative process in which lawmakers offer competing plans to achieve their sometimes shared priorities.

One way to skin the legislative cat is to tie two or more issues together to make it attractive enough to get at least 26 votes in the Senate and 51 in the House.

For example, Gov. Terry Branstad, a former legislator himself, has tried to link lawmakers’ support for funding school infrastructure to his goal of addressing water quality before a court tells the state how to do that.

There doesn’t seem to be much support for Branstad’s “rob Peter to pay Paul” approach. He has proposed extending SAVE, the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education — formerly known as the statewide school infrastructure sales and services tax — for 20 years, but scooping some of the growth in revenue to raise about $5 billion for water quality projects.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, told a roomful of lobbyists and lawmakers last week “there does not seem to be widespread support to take money from SAVE to address water quality at this point.” So he’s “divorced” the water quality initiative from the school tax

That hasn’t stopped others from offering plans to fund water quality improvements. For some, it’s the right thing to do. For others, it’s an attempt to avoid a court-ordered cleanup that could happen the Des Moines Water Works prevails in a lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties it alleges are responsible for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, one of the city’s sources of drinking water.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who wants to become a U.S. senator, is proposing to take $90 million from the state’s ending balance to implement three targeted regional watershed programs, including the Raccoon, to address the nitrate problem.

Democratic Reps. Marti Anderson of Des Moines and Chuck Isenhart of Dubuque rolled out a plan create a private-public partnership with agriculture producers voluntarily assessing themselves a water quality checkoff fee similar to those that fund research and marketing of beef, pork and other commodities. Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, also has a plan to tap the checkoffs. And there’s a plan to divert sales taxes on water utility sales to create a revolving loan fund for water quality.

The most recent suggestion comes from Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, and six other House Democrats. They’ve proposed letting voters raise the local-option sales tax in their county to fund water quality. Interestingly, that’s pretty how SAVE started.

“Water quality is not just a state issue,” Wessel-Kroeschell said. Plus voters might take a less partisan approach than legislators when it comes to approving their tax dollars being used to clean up their waters.

Branstad appreciates the input, but he’s holding out hope for his plan, but focusing on what’s possible this year.

“This is a framework and we’re going to be flexible” he said. “If we can make some progress this year, we’ll keep working on a more long-term solution.”

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