Farm group: Make water quality a priority#xa0;

Sales tax increase among options

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DES MOINES – Members of Iowa’s largest farm organization want to make sure existing or new state revenues — including a state sales tax increase if need be — are reshaped to make water quality initiatives that help retain nutrients and soil a top funding priority.

Long-term, dedicated funding for water quality and soil conservation “should be financed by reprioritizing existing state revenue and new dedicated revenue sources,” said delegates Thursday to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation summer policy conference. Funding should include “contributions by all Iowans” to pay for the state’s nutrient reduction strategy, the delegates said.

The policy statement, passed overwhelmingly, reads: “The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund distribution formula should be redefined to focus on implementing the nutrient reduction strategy and lake or stream restoration projects with minimal emphasis on land acquisition, recreational trails or REAP.”

Estimates indicate Iowa will need to invest billions of dollars over a long period for conservation measures to improve the quality of rivers and lakes – more than the farm economy alone can support, said Craig Hill, the organization’s president.

The effort is going to require investments from government at the federal and state levels, private sources and farmers to accomplish the goals of reducing rural and urban nitrogen and phosphorus losses that pollute waterways, he said.

Several funding options have been offered in the Legislature without consensus. A pending lawsuit brought by the Des Moines Water Works against upstream drainage districts in three northern Iowa counties are scheduled to be argued next year.

Hill said Thursday that farm interests are confident they will prevail in court but they understand the need to address water quality and want state resources retooled to place funding priorities for conservation improvements and soil retention ahead of recreational or other uses.

“We’re not being bullied by this lawsuit. Our goal is to make sincere efforts at fixing the problem which is holding soil and holding nutrients on our farms,” Hill said.

“We have an ambitious interest in getting that funded adequately and getting it implemented and executed. If we don’t find the funds and we can’t meet the obligation that we have with the nutrient reduction strategy, then it’s possible new revenue will have to be derived and that may be a sales tax.”

Iowa voters agreed overwhelmingly in 2010 to establish a trust fund financed by three-eights of any future one-cent sales tax increase for conservation, resource protection and recreational purposes that would be constitutionally protected. Farm Bureau delegates want legislators to reshape the trust fund spending priorities.

Last legislative session, Gov. Terry Branstad proposed to share future school infrastructure sales tax revenue with water quality projects as a long-term approach that would not increase current taxes. The concept garnered limited legislative traction. He since has said he would be open to repurposing the penny sales tax for school infrastructure set to expire 2029 by continuing the tax and splitting the ongoing proceeds with five-eighths going to education and three-eighths going into a constitutionally protected natural resources trust that Iowa voters approved in 2010.

The GOP-led Iowa House proposed shifting $478 million over 13 years to water quality projects from a water metering tax and the gambling-funded state infrastructure account. The Iowa Senate did not take up the measure in the past session.

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