Progress, before a big debate

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So the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation is no longer opposed to generating new state revenue for water quality initiatives. But it’s also not directly supporting a higher sales tax to fill a voter-created trust fund for conservation and recreation.

One hundred voting delegates who met last week to set policy priorities for the state’s largest farm group want a permanent, long-term source of funding to help clean up and protect Iowa’s waterways, “financed by reprioritizing existing state revenue and new dedicated revenue sources.”

As for how to spend that revenue, the group wants the lion’s share used to help farmers meet voluntary goals for reducing fertilizer runoff into rivers, streams and lakes, but with “minimal emphasis on land acquisition, recreational trails or REAP.”

So it stopped short of joining a coalition of groups pushing for a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase to fill the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust fund, approved by 63 percent of Iowa voters in 2010. Since then, lawmakers have resisted approving a tax increase that would pour $180 million into the fund annually.

The Farm Bureau opposed creating the fund in 2010 and has flatly opposed filling it, until now. For those of us who see the trust fund as the best way to fund water quality initiatives, this is progress.

But let’s not get too giddy just yet.

The most charitable read on the Farm Bureau’s new position is that it’s the best the group could do considering its members are divided over the idea of raising taxes and new conservation spending that could come with strings. It’s a step in the right direction, even if I and others don’t think it goes far enough.

The least charitable read? Farm Bureau is unwilling to lobby directly for filling the fund. But, hey, if it happens, they’d like much of the money to go to farmers. Sound good?

What I think is most significant about this development is we’re moving toward the second, far more difficult phase of this debate. Pressure for a sales tax increase is building and, in my opinion, eventually will succeed. But agreeing on a formula for how to spend those dollars will be a very heavy lift.

It’s true a formula was worked out in 2010, but it’s not contained in the constitutional amendment. Lawmakers are free to change it. If that’s what happens, it will toss agricultural interests, environmentalists, conservation groups, hunters, trails advocates and others into a debate over how best to spend new money.

The Farm Bureau has its own ideas, but how much is it willing to cooperate with other stakeholders, and what is it willing to give? If the federation insists on plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into existing initiatives, with benefits that are difficult to measure, aimed at meeting clean water benchmarks remaining forever voluntary, we’ll know it’s not really serious about compromise.

Because if we’re all going to pay higher taxes, we deserve clear evidence we’re getting something for our money. And at some point, it seems reasonable to expect producers to meet mandatory minimum standards for protecting our water. We should be willing to give them time, but not a blank check.

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