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Northey and Corbett testing the (impaired) waters ahead of 2018

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It’s primary Election Day, and custom dictates I refrain from opining about the ongoing 2016 contest as voters go to the polls.

But, hey, 2018 is fair game.

Current wisdom suggests there will be a wide-open race for governor. On Friday, two potential Republican candidates participated in a water-quality forum at Iowa Central Community College hosted by KVFD radio’s Mike Devine. Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey sat at opposite ends of the six-person panel.

Northey long has been mentioned as a potential contender. Corbett has been traversing the state touting the work of his Engage Iowa think tank. And if water quality remains a big issue in 2018, Friday’s forum showed how Corbett and Northey are taking significantly different approaches.

Corbett’s think tank calls for raising the state sales tax by a penny, with three-eighths filling the constitutionally protected Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund and the rest covering the cost of flatter income tax rates. Much of the trust fund would be spent on reducing fertilizer runoff from farms through the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, matched by farmer investments and donations from private-sector businesses.

He calls it the “three-legged stool” formula, modeled on Cedar Rapids efforts in the Middle Cedar Watershed. He points out voters approved creation of the trust fund by a wide margin in 2010.

“I think the people are way ahead of the politicians when it comes to recognizing a funding source,” Corbett said.

The mayor insists, without action on a permanent, stable funding source for water-quality efforts, we’re headed for federal regulations and lawsuits like the one filed by the Des Moines Water Works against rural counties.

“I’m certainly fearful of the EPA, lurking around the corner, ready to regulate farm fields,” Corbett said. He contends if political clout couldn’t save timber or coal from regulation, why would agriculture be different?

Northey’s assessment is far more sunny.

“I think what we’re doing right now is engagement to a great degree,” Northey said. “I think we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress in engaging folks.”

He deploys “engagement” a lot as he argues current voluntary programs are making progress. He wants more funding for those efforts, and favors an Iowa House Republican plan that would have directed $464 million in gambling taxes into his department over the next 13 years.

Northey opposes raising the sales tax. Forget that 2010 vote. “When people supported that, they supported establishment of a trust fund, not the tax increase,” Northey said.

Corbett’s risk assessments are closer to the mark than Northey’s platitudes about progress. Northey’s notion that voters wanted a fund but no money to fill it is political Twister raised to an Olympic level.

But the big question of how new funding will be spent also lurks around the corner. Tossing public bucks into current programs without a focused strategy that includes timelines, clear objectives and measurable benchmarks would be a mistake. Why would we raise Iowans’ taxes without some evidence those taxes will purchase actual progress?

Candidates will test the waters. But cleaning them up takes an actual plan.

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

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