OPINION

Linn County conservation bond victory sends a clear message

Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

A week ago, I figured crossing the 60 percent threshold needed to pass a $40 million conservation bond issue in Linn County would be a tall order, maybe too tall. Instead, the measure rocketed past 60 percent like an out-of-state driver blowing past Cedar Rapids speed cameras.

As someone who has been watching ballot measures around these parts most of a decade, it was an astounding result. Nearly 74 percent of voters countywide agreed to tax themselves to pay for water quality efforts, parks and trails. While voters split up over Trump-Clinton and other front-ballot races, they came together in remarkable numbers to invest in conservation, including water quality measures aimed at cleaning up runoff and reducing flood threats.

A landslide for reducing runoff. Conservation is more popular than casino gambling. Surprise.

In 18 precincts, support for the measure topped 78 percent, including six precincts where it received backing in excess of 80 percent. It received no less than 76 percent support in recently sandbagged precincts along and straddling the Cedar River in the heart Cedar Rapids, including 81 percent in a precinct that includes New Bohemia.

The bond got some of its strongest support in a swath of precincts cutting through the middle of Cedar Rapids, including 89 percent in Cedar Rapids 22, which includes part of downtown and Coe College. But strong support wasn’t just a Cedar Rapids phenomenon. The measure flirted with 80 percent in two Marion precincts, hit 82 percent in Maine Township, which includes Central City, and topped 80 percent on the south side of Mount Vernon.

It failed to gain 60 percent in seven largely rural townships. In only one precinct, Boulder Township in the county’s northeast corner, did no-votes prevail, 56 to 44 percent. But in four of the seven precincts where the measure failed to gain 60 percent, it received 55 percent or more.

So while many Election Day messages remain the subject of great and heated debate, this one seems pretty clear. Voters want the County Conservation Board to collaborate with landowners to restore wetlands and install other natural measures along rivers and other waterways to soak up runoff, reduce pollution and mitigate flooding. They want partnerships with interested groups and governmental entities that leverage additional dollars. They also want new investments in parks improvements and initiatives to link up trail networks. And they’re willing to pay for it.

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It’s a strong signal, the sort that should get plenty of attention at the Statehouse. Maybe Iowans really would like to see the constitutional Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund they created in 2010 actually filled with their tax dollars.

But on the same night Linn County voters were making themselves clear, voters elsewhere made the road to a major statewide water quality initiative as murky as blue-green algae. They put Republicans in charge of the whole enchilada, handing them state Senate control to go with a GOP-dominated House and a governor’s chair filled by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

The GOP in Iowa is hardly famous for its commitment to the environment, so you might think hopes for meaningful water quality action are in trouble. Perhaps, but there also are reasons for some optimism.

Worst case, nothing happens. Slightly less worse case, Republicans go with the bill passed by the House last year siphoning gambling tax dollars from a state infrastructure fund and redirecting a state sales tax on metered water bills to pile up $464 million over 13 years for water quality. Roughly half of that pile would go for edge-of-field and in-field conservation measures on farms, administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

Better than nothing, but not permanent, sustainable or constitutionally protected. The Legislature would get a great report each October on progress, but it would show the number of projects funded, not whether those efforts actually are improving water quality. Want to find out who is getting money and if the measures they paid for remain in place, long-term? Too bad, the bill makes it clear recipients of these dollars must be kept confidential under state law.

Best case, lawmakers pass a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase to fill the trust fund, providing upward of $180 million annually, much of it for water quality programs and projects. Dollars would flow to watershed management authorities run by local people who understand priority needs within the watershed. The money would be targeted, not scattered across the countryside.

True, the GOP didn’t win the Legislature to raise taxes. But they are talking about tax reforms, a conversation which may provide an opening for water quality.

Take, for instance, the plan offered by Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, which would raise the state sales tax by a penny. Three-eighths goes to the natural resources trust fund, while the rest is used to replace revenue lost by flattening income tax rates. Democrats, who might have opposed the regressive nature of such a plan when they ran the Senate, won’t be in any position to stop it.

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Sounds simple enough. That is, until you realize such a compromise only opens the door to an epic battle between environmental advocates, outdoor recreation interests, farm organizations and others over how trust fund dollars would be spent. The Iowa Farm Bureau, not surprisingly, wants farmers to get most of the bucks. Pheasants Forever may declare “Never!” And here we go.

But, above all, lawmakers mired in sausage-making shouldn’t lose sight of the fact this issue is a priority for a large number of Iowans. Just look at Linn County, where clean water outperformed every contested candidate on the ballot, even some farmer named Grassley.

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

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