Funding crunch may impede environmental progress in Iowa legislature

Using sales tax money to address clean water not likely

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Despite some pressing challenges on land and water, this is not shaping up to be a banner year for Mother Nature in the Iowa Legislature.

The best hope for generating the kind of revenue the state needs to join farmers and federal partners in a cost-sharing approach to cleaning up polluted waters and conserving Iowa’s bountiful soil is a voter-endorsed sales tax increase that is being given little chance in an election-year session.

Rural forces led by Gov. Terry Branstad, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and state Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp have pushed a voluntary approach to reducing farm nutrients causing nitrate problems in waterways with practices such as cover crops, no-till or strip till planting preparations or using a nitrification inhibitor when applying fall fertilizer.

Northey said more than $325 million in state and federal funds have been directed to programs with water quality benefits in the past year — not including money farmers spent without government assistance.

However, critics say the effort isn’t enough to reduce farm chemical runoff. The Des Moines Water Works, for instance, has sued drainage districts in three upstream counties that feed into the Raccoon River basin. The lawsuit claims farm drainage tiles raise nitrate levels by acting as a conduit to move fertilizer from fields into waterways, negatively affecting drinking water supplies.

Environmental advocates also are pushing federal regulators to take tougher steps to enforce clean water requirements and impose nutrient management plans that farm groups fear will negatively impact a major sector of Iowa’s economy.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa Democratic governor, has appealed for patience and collaboration rather than conflict and confrontation to improve water quality in Iowa, telling Iowans during a visit last summer that water-quality concerns have built up over time and involve complex factors.


Some Republicans like Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and his Engage Iowa think tank want to use a three-eighths of a penny sales tax endorsed by Iowa voters in 2010 to automatically direct up to $180 million annually into a constitutionally protected natural resources trust fund. Corbett, a former Republican speaker of the Iowa House, also is calling on the private sector to provide a $40 million match to go toward reducing agricultural runoff carrying nitrates and other pollutants into waterways.

Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, has authored a bill seeking to implement the three-eighths of a percent sales tax to fund a federal-state cost share effort. But Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee who has been a leading critic of the Water Works lawsuit, said he does not see lawmakers passing a tax hike during this session.

“I don’t see that getting any consideration. We passed the gas tax last year. I haven’t talked to anybody that says they’re working to get that passed. I think there are other ways to make this work,” Feenstra said.

At the same time, Feenstra concedes a proactive effort is needed and believes results of a Dordt College study of effective farming practices holds promise. He also would like to see legislation saying lawsuits by quasi-governmental bodies — such as the Des Moines Water Works — that involve taxpayer money would first have to be approved by elected officials like a city council or county board of supervisors.

Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix, a farmer from Shell Rock, said farmers “want nothing more than to keep nutrients in the soil” to maximize yields and investments and are “willing partners” in voluntary solutions. But, he said filing lawsuits is not conducive to building trust and many are leery of partnering with federal officials given the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s history of government regulations.

Be that as it may, Johnson said, “doing nothing is not an option.” To that end, Northey asked Branstad to include a $10 million request for the Iowa Water Quality Initiative when the governor submits his fiscal 2017 state budget plan to a joint session of the Legislature next week.

Northey said the money — on top of $9.6 million approved for the current fiscal year — would allow his department to continue offering cost sharing statewide to farmers trying new water quality practices, expanding work in targeted watersheds and continuing to develop new programs to help engage Iowans in water quality efforts.

He also wants an additional $7.5 million for conservation cost sharing and $1.92 million to close AG drainage wells.


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Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said the Legislature has worked to address environmental concerns in past sessions only to have some of their actions met with gubernatorial vetoes. He said lawmakers will be interested to see what Branstad proposes, given the state’s financial situation.

“I think Gov. Branstad is going to be embarrassed by his environmental record and probably come back with some recommendation,” Gronstal said.

“We certainly would be willing to look at that but we’re not going to cannibalize education or the basic social safety net so that he can put a fig leaf on his record on the environment.”

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