Iowa House vote propels Branstad wish for water quality plan

Bill goes to the Senate, which had advanced its own funding ideas

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DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad may get one of his wishes as he comes to the end of 23 years in the governor’s office — his signature on a long-term water quality improvement plan.

“I am very hopeful that will be one of the last significant policy pieces passed” before the Legislature adjourns its 2017 session, said Branstad, talking Thursday about what he’d like to accomplish before he leaves to become ambassador to China.

On a 78-18 vote Thursday night, the House moved that a step closer to his desk with passage of a plan to make $513 million available over 12 years to for what floor manager Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, called long-term, collaborative, science-based, non-regulatory projects.

The bill now goes back to the Senate because the House replaced Senate File 512 with the language of House File 612 that would give preference to projects involving collaborative efforts by cities, rural landowners and other entities working on watershed-based water quality improvements.

Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, didn’t think finding agreement on the bill would be a problem.

“We want to get something done on water quality. It’s a priority of the governor, a priority of the House, a priority of the Senate,” he said.

Because the state’s resources are limited, Baltimore said, said, lawmakers “cannot continue the old way of thinking” that programs, agencies, communities and individuals will solve the problem on their own.

“If we are going to successfully address water quality issues in this state, we have to work together,” Baltimore said. “The competing interests have to work together.”

SF 512, which the House amended by substituting its plan, HF 612, would address a broad range of water quality issues from farm runoff to urban wastewater to industrial waste.

“This is not, absolutely is not, an agricultural problem,” Baltimore said. “This is not an urban problem. This is not an industry or business problem. This is an Iowa problem and because it is an Iowa problem we all need to work together to solve it.”

Under the House plan, Iowa taxpayers would support water quality efforts through existing funding streams to provide $268 million to the Nutrient Reduction Strategy that helps pay for on-farm water and soil conservation efforts.

City residents would support water quality improvements though and excise tax on metered water to raise $244 million over 12 years to fund grants and a revolving loan fund for water and wastewater treatment projects. The excise tax would not be a new tax — it replaces an existing sales tax on metered water.

Support for the plan was bipartisan.

Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, called the bill a good start.

“There’s much more to be done and we’re going to have to find ways to expand this legislation so that we can ensure clean drinking water and ensure that when we have 100-year and 500-year rain events that we don’t have excessive property damage.”

However, several other Democrats opposed the funding plan because it would divert local-option sales tax dollars and money from the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education, or SAVE program, for school construction project needs.

According to the Legislative Services Agency, school districts would see a decrease of $3.7 million next year. Communities that collect local-option sales taxes would see a loss of $3.3 million.

Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said her school district would lose $124,000 in SAVE dollars in fiscal 2019 and then similar amounts in the following years.

Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids, had similar concerns for schools in her district. She also questioned a lack of accountability in the bill — wondering why there were no standards or benchmarks to measure improvement.

“So our kids don’t look back in 20 years and say, ‘What did you do?’ Or, ‘What didn’t you do?’” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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