After 25 years, Iowa lawmakers should break with tradition on REAP

An view of the rotunda on the 2nd floor of the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. The area shown is in between the House and Senate Chambers. (Steve Pope/Freelance)
An view of the rotunda on the 2nd floor of the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. The area shown is in between the House and Senate Chambers. (Steve Pope/Freelance)

In Iowa’s Legislature, tradition endures.

Men must wear coats and ties in the Senate, when its in session. The governor must report annually on the condition of the state.

The Resource Enhancement and Protection program, known as REAP, must get the shaft. Every year.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1989, the Iowa House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to create REAP, calling it an environmental landmark and predicting it would pump $300 million into conservation, recreation, parkland expansion and other bold efforts over 10 years. It was to be funded with $20 million annually from the state general fund and the rest from lottery proceeds.

That promised $20 million share remains embedded in the Iowa Code, in what’s known as a standing General Fund appropriation. It’s supposed to be automatic. But every year for a quarter-century, legislatures of both stripes have used a magic word, “notwithstanding,” to break that $20 million promise. The most REAP ever received was $18 million.

“I never imagined that would be the case,” said Sen. Dennis Black, D-Lynnville, who was an architect of REAP in the House, along with lawmakers such as the late Sen. Mary Lundby, R-Marion. Black, perhaps the Genera Assembly’s top expert on natural resources and conservation issues, is retiring from the Legislature.

“I thought it would be an absolute slam dunk,” Black said.

Makes sense, considering that REAP is the sort of initiative that actually works. Local committees and elected officials have the biggest say in how dollars get spent. It took 25 years to get to that $300 million goal, but those dollars have leveraged millions of dollars more. Every county has been touched. Linn County, according to state figures, has received $6.5 million in grants. The program is immensely popular, bipartisan and effective.

But it could do so much more. And from a budget standpoint, the slam dunk has become a football that gets pulled away, year after year. We seem to have unlimited resources to chase smokestacks and grant loopholes, but never to fully fund REAP.

This year, a long list of groups urged lawmakers to spend $25 million on REAP for its 25th anniversary. Keep that 1989 promise, just this once. The Senate is on board, with plans to provide $16 million directly for REAP and another $9 million in one-time bucks.

The House has approved only $16 million, while shifting dollars from REAP to cover other agricultural conservation and parks maintenance programs. Rep. Jack Drake, R-Griswold, told an audience in Creston that $3 million will be reassigned.

Fine programs, I’m sure, but they shouldn’t be funded through an already underfunded REAP program. REAP isn’t supposed to be a pot of money scooped by lawmakers to patch budget gaps or fund pet programs or earmarks.

“This is outrageous,” said Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson, a Republican. Black said the Senate won’t accept the House plan.

So, now, REAP will be tossed into the late-session scrum over dueling budget bills. Lord knows what will emerge. Happy anniversary.

In 2010, 63 percent of Iowa voters ratified a constitutional amendment creating a permanent conservation and recreation fund using a future 3/8-cent sales tax increase. That shows Iowans support REAP’s mission. We want to enjoy and protect our natural resources. It’s an Iowa tradition.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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