Veto 'saves,' but Leopold's mission lacks bucks

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So our governor “saved” the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture on Friday, unless you think “saving” means the center’s vital research will continue. It wasn’t that sort of save.

Gov. Terry Branstad used a line-item veto to strike language from a budget bill seeking to delete the center’s existence from the Iowa code. He did not, however, veto provisions moving much of the center’s funding to Iowa State University’s Nutrient Research Center.

Leopold gets $1.5 million from a tax on fertilizer created through the Groundwater Protection Act signed by Branstad in 1986. Now, that’s gone. It also gets about $400,000 through a state line item, but that also was erased.

So Branstad saved the center’s name, but not its money. How on earth it will be able to carry out its mission, namely developing environmentally sustainable farming practices down the road and around the globe, is anyone’s guess. Moving that work into the university bureaucracy could undermine its independence from agribusiness influence. Maybe that’s the plan.

And maybe Iowa State will figure out a way to shift funds within its budget to keep the center operating. That’s the hope at this point.

But what a fitting cherry on top of this legislative session, where water quality and environmental protection were issues in name only. Legislative leaders loved to talk about the need to do more to protect waterways from fertilizer runoff, which, once again, with feeling, also preserves soil, shields lakes from toxic, beach-closing algae blooms and mitigates costly flooding. It was supposed to be a top legislative priority. We heard it often. The speeches were stirring.

And in the end, words were all we got. The House and Senate passed differing approaches to funding new water quality projects, but didn’t bother to bridge those differences in the session’s final hours.

We heard from some key rural lawmakers that Iowa’s water problems aren’t really all that serious. Don’t believe the tree-huggers. Really, we should just raise the federal drinking water standard for nitrates. Problem solved. And some waterways are impaired because of trees, or they’re “too clean.” Yep.

Instead of making new investments, or, God forbid, finally filling a constitutionally protected environmental trust fund created by voters nearly seven years ago, they eliminate the Leopold Center. They tried and, fortunately, retreated from scrapping the Iowa Flood Center, just months after its work helped the state’s second-largest city fight off major flooding.

Instead of revisiting livestock confinement rules tying the hands of state and local officials seeking to protect environmentally sensitive areas from pollution, the Legislature created new legal protections for confinement owners.

Instead of addressing our water quality problem, the Golden Dome of wisdom spawned a new threat. We’ve now got a legislative quality problem. Runoff from this legislative session actually is making things worse.

At least we were saved from other scourges, such as rampant voter fraud and higher minimum wages. But, as the Leopold Center example shows us, “saved,” isn’t what it used to be.

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