The plan to fund Iowa's water quality efforts has been here all along

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Political leaders pronouncing desire to fund Iowa’s water quality needs keep asking the same questions and fabricating new answers, while all along the most profound solution has been laying at their feet — placed before them by the people of Iowa. The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust is the most vetted, publicly supported, and substantial way to address water quality and other outdoor quality of life needs in Iowa.

STUDIED AND VETTED

In 2006, the Iowa Legislature established a committee to study a sustainable means to fund natural resources and outdoor recreation needs. I was fortunate to be among more than 20 people representing diverse points of view on this Sustainable Funding Committee. The Committee included republican and democratic legislators, and representatives from groups such as Farm Bureau and Farmers’ Union, Pheasants Forever and Duck Unlimited, Environmental Council and Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, counties and cities, Soil & Water Conservation Districts, and others.

The Committee received data and consulted experts in order to assess dollars needed to adequately care for Iowa’s water, soil, wildlife, and other natural resources. A pie chart was developed, showing how funds should be strategically directed to meet needs at both state and local levels. More than 40 unique potential funding mechanisms were identified — some of which are being rehashed today. The Committee analyzed these mechanisms as to their ability to address the state’s funding need and the degree to which each mechanism is sustainable.

A survey was conducted by ISU Center for Agricultural and Rural Development to determine Iowans’ willingness to pay for natural resources and outdoor recreation. Those surveyed largely were willing to pay more. They felt that all citizens should have a stake in funding these efforts, and that funds should be constitutionally protected so as to be sustainable and guaranteed for the stated purpose.

In the end, the only mechanism that could raise substantial dollars and ensure a stake by all Iowans (as well as visitors to Iowa), was a fractional (3/8-cent) increase in state sales tax placed in a constitutionally protected trust fund. Most the money from the Trust would address water qualities needs. The Trust would also support various park and outdoor recreation needs, and provides the quality of life that brings-in and retains young workers and families. The Committee’s recommendations reached consensus among its diverse stakeholder groups.

An Interim Legislative Committee consisting of both political parties from both the Senate and House of Representatives were given the recommendations. Members carefully deliberated on the dollar amount needed, the pie chart showing how dollars would be spent, sales tax funding, and amending the Iowa Constitution. They unanimously endorsed all recommendations.

Amending the Iowa Constitution is no small feat. Any proposed change must pass both houses of the Legislature in two consecutive years during the same legislative session, and then must be placed on a general election ballot for a referendum vote of Iowans.

An advocate group called I WILL (Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy) was formed to educate legislators and inform the public about this measure. Ultimately, the measure passed both chambers of the Legislature in 2008, and again in 2009. In 2010, Iowans went to the polls and overwhelmingly voted to amend the Iowa Constitution by creating the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust, and dedicating 3/8-cent of the next sales tax increase to the Trust. For comparison, more people voted for the Trust than voted for Governor Branstad. In the same year, the Legislature and Governor enacted the funding distribution formula in Iowa Code Chapter 461.

So, all facets of the constitutionally protected Trust Fund recommendation were vetted by stakeholder groups, by legislative committees and the full Legislature, through education and polling of the public, and most importantly by Iowans in the voting booth!

POLITICAL ACTION NEEDED

The only step not yet taken is raising the sales tax by 3/8-cent. Iowa does not allow this to happen by public referendum — otherwise it would be done. In Iowa, this funding requires political action by the Legislature and Governor — and politics is the holdup.

So, as the Governor and some legislators scratch their heads and come up with various and sometimes strange, controversial, and un-vetted ways to fund water quality and other natural resources needs, it is with some awe that many of us wonder why they don’t look to simply funding the Trust — a mechanism already put in place by Iowa voters. There is no need to take dollars already promised to schools, or to spring un-vetted new ideas on Iowans. Tell your state legislators and the governor it is time to simply recognize the will of Iowans, and fund the Trust!

• Dan Cohen is Executive Director of the Buchanan County Conservation Board, and is a freelance writer from Independence, Iowa. He served on the Governor’s Sustainable Funding for Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Committee from 2006 to 2010. Comments: bccbdan@iowatelecom.net

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