Iowa water hopes not dead yet

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So your Iowa Legislature, presented by Sizzler University, may still do something smart and meaty on water quality this year.

Chances remain lean. But even that’s remarkable, considering not so long ago it looked like the nothing-to-see-here caucus had the upper hand. I figured the recent dismissal of the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit over polluted farm runoff, which sparked Iowa’s water quality debate, sponged up the last drops of hope.

But then 13 Republicans led by Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, got behind a push to raise the state sales tax by one-eighth of a cent each year for three years to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The constitutionally protected fund was created by voters in 2010, but lawmakers have refused to raise the sales tax to fill it.

Kaufmann made headlines before the session by proposing his famous “suck it up, buttercup” bill aimed at universities coddling students shaken by our Trumped election. Maybe this new effort could be called “drink it up, buttercup.”

Fully phased in, the tax would raise $180 million or more for an array of conservation and recreation efforts. The bill, HF 597, filed Monday, says 60 percent must be spent on ag pollution controls inspired by the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. That proportion roughly matches the current trust fund spending plan outlined in state law.

But these are Republicans, after all, so the sales tax increase would be offset by reductions in income tax rates, starting with reductions in the lowest income brackets. Kaufmann says that’s intended to reduce the sting of raising the regressive sales tax.

So far, the bill is supported by a large coalition of groups lobbying lawmakers to fill the trust fund. No groups have yet registered opposition.

“We’ve really been activating the grass roots, a lot of folks who support the cause have been showing up at forums, writing emails, making phone calls,” Kaufmann told me. “I think it’s had an impact on people at the Capitol, creating a buzz for the issue.”

You don’t need to be a Sizzler U grad to know much is at stake. (Sorry.) Cutting the flow of nitrates and phosphorus from farmland pays big dividends in safeguarding drinking water, protecting lakes, reducing soil loss and mitigating flooding. There’s also that big dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico you may have heard about.

Federal agencies watching water are on the verge of Trumpian decimation. Iowa’s tight budget is an argument against income tax cuts, but it’s also an argument for creating protected funding for the environment, which is often first on the chopping block.

Obstacles abound. It’s not certain the bill will even get a committee hearing. Another bill, using unprotected gambling dollars to provide less water funding, is moving first. Kaufmann insists his bill could be coupled with that effort. We’ll see.

Democrats no doubt will balk at tax reductions hitting a general fund already unable to cover needs. Some rural Republicans see no problem and want little or no action. And if the bill does move, a pitched battle over how the money will be spent is likely.

But what looked like a cooling back-burner issue now has some sizzle. A rare bright spot.

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

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