Lawmaker says Leopold Center veto not what it seems

Quirmbach: bill language hampers center's operations

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Having spent a few days absorbing news the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture will not be forced to close — as lawmakers initially proposed — but still will lose all the state funding that previously kept it open, Iowa State University administrators are carving out a way forward.

That path will include reorganization typical of programs undergoing budget and workforce changes, according to ISU News Service. Although details of the reorganization haven’t been made public, the university on Thursday reported Mark Rasmussen will continue to direct the center, which currently supports two faculty and six staff.

But one lawmaker called the center’s future “cloudy” thanks to Gov. Terry Branstad’s decision to leave in place language hampering its ability to operate even while vetoing the section that would have forced its closure.

“So it exists,” Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said. “But the language that was passed in the bill, and still is operative, is the language that basically says they have to shut down.”

Specifically, the legislation cut all funding for the center and transferred moneys and control to ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which it compels to “cancel any existing grant or project that is not in the process of being completed” — except where cancellation could result in a lawsuit.

Quirmbach said that language clearly appears to hamstring the center, and he reached out to the governor’s office to ask whether Branstad meant to leave the language in and, if so, how he intends for the center to proceed.

Ben Hammes, a spokesman for the governor’s office, told The Gazette that Branstad’s veto aimed to keep the center alive while also transferring the funding and control. Branstad doesn’t plan to amend his veto, Hammes said.

Quirmbach said that’s confusing and leaves Leopold’s future convoluted.

“It would seem that Leopold has the right to exist, but they are being told not to do anything,” he said. “The governor’s item veto is less than it appeared. Those who wanted to save Leopold or thought that’s what the governor has done, I don’t think that’s correct.”

In a news release Thursday, Iowa State reported the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences must manage completion of Leopold’s competitive-grant projects funded through previously-allocated state dollars. ISU officials report 49 of those active projects, in addition to several others funded through private gifts.

Although the university didn’t respond to questions about confusion in the law’s language, Rasmussen and ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Wendy Wintersteen said the loss in state support means “options will need to be reviewed to discern the center’s future with resources available from current or future philanthropy.”

The Leopold Center brings in about $250,000 annually from an endowment — revenue administrators expect will continue. But, before lawmakers passed the measure yanking its support, the agricultural center welcomed about $1.9 million in state appropriations.

That came through a line-item allocation of $397,417 and an annual portion — about 35 percent — of the Agriculture Management Account, which is a pool of funds established by the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act.

The Leopold portion of that pool, which includes fees on nitrogen fertilizer sales and pesticide registration, amounted to about $1.5 million. The new legislation cut the Leopold line-item allocation and moved its Agriculture Management Account portion to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center — which in four years has funded more than 40 research projects led by Iowa State, the University of Iowa, and the University of Northern Iowa.

The funding shift keeps afloat the research center, which lost its $1.3 million in state support.

Having narrowly survived this legislative session, the Leopold Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary — as it was created as part of the 1987 Groundwater Protection Act and named in honor of Iowa-born naturalist Aldo Leopold.

Over the three decades, the center sponsored more than 600 grants involving research, education, and demonstration on an array of agricultural topics.

“For 30 years, the Leopold Center has offered hope, new knowledge and significant research findings to Iowa and the nation,” Rasmussen said. “While we appreciate that the name and the Center will remain, the loss of all state funding severely restricts operations and our ability to serve our many stakeholders.”

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