Staff Columnist

A rough patch for Iowa's still-empty natural resources trust fund

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)

For Iowans still waiting for their 2010 vote to count for something, it’s been a rough year, so far.

I’m talking about the 63 percent of Iowans who voted for a constitutional amendment creating the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The fund is intended to be a constitutionally protected source of bucks for water quality efforts, conservation measures and recreation investments. Funding could top $180 million annually.

But since its passage, governors and state lawmakers have failed to provide a three-eighths-cent state sales tax increase needed to fill the fund. The excuses for inaction range from political to ideological to illogical. Voters, I’ve been told, repeatedly, wanted the fund, but didn’t really want the tax. They’d like it to remain empty, while environmental needs are chronically underfunded.

The ballot language was inadequate, I hear. Voters were confused. Considering the amendment was approved in 78 of the state’s 99 counties, it must have been mass confusion.

Sure, with Republicans in charge at the Statehouse, odds were against a tax increase. Hopes rested on the possibility a fund-filling tax measure would get folded into a larger GOP tax reform package.

But when the big tax package came, Republicans opted instead to raise the sales tax on Netflix, Uber and other “new economy” products. The environment got the shaft, and likely more cuts due to declining revenues. Meanwhile, the GOP’s budget grabs $3 million to keep up state parks from the annually underfunded REAP program.

Instead of spending real, sustainable dollars to help fix the state’s water quality problems, Republicans instead cobbled together a patchwork plan using gambling taxes and a charge on metered water over the next 12 years. The plan, backed by Senate Republicans and Gov. Kim Reynolds, was panned by clean water advocates and praised by groups such as the Farm Bureau. It’s money, but a drop in the bucket compared to the trust fund.

Others saw it for what it is, window dressing doubling as political cover.

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“I don’t know about all of you, but I did not come down here to check a box,” said state Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, who favored a far better House version. “Just because the words ‘water quality’ are in the title of a bill does not make me proud to vote for it so that I can put it on a postcard when I go campaign.”

Best of all, it gave politicians eager to cling to the status quo a great talking point.

“I like where we are today,” said current state Sec. of Agriculture Mike Naig when I asked him about the sales tax issue last month. He opposes a sales tax increase.

“The trust fund is voter approved, the tax is not. The voters also sent their legislators to Des Moines to work on these issues,” Naig said.

Do you think voters who voted for the fund didn’t want it filled?

“I don’t know. I can’t speak for voters,” Naig said.

Naig, who was appointed by Reynolds when his predecessor went to work for the president, now is seeking the support of those confounding voters as one of five Republicans running for ag secretary. He’s the only one who flatly opposes a sales tax increase. Others are more open to the idea.

“I believe in it,” said Ray Gaesser a farmer from Corning and a former president of the American Soybean Association during a recent candidate forum on KXEL radio, citing voters’ clear support for the trust fund measure.

State Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, at the same forum, didn’t endorse the idea, but called the tax increase “inevitable.” He told a forum in April, according to Iowa Farmer Today, he would support the tax increase as part of a broader tax reform package. I can’t find any evidence he actually advocated for it when the broader tax reform package hit the Senate.

Former Iowa Environmental Protection Commission chair Chad Ingels, who farms near Randalia, supports the three-eighths-cent increase, but only if 100 percent of the dollars go for ag-based conservation measures under the state Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Former Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Lang agreed with Ingels. In fact, all five candidates support changing the formula to give more sales tax dollars to farmers who adopt conservation practices.

Under the current formula, approved by lawmakers ahead of the 2010 amendment vote, as much as 60 percent of tax proceeds go to programs benefiting water quality and soil conservation. There’s also money for trails, REAP and assorted outdoor programs funded by the Department of Natural Resources.

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It’s the product of a multiyear effort by an 18-member advisory committee with representatives from farm groups, conservationists, environmental advocates, sportsmen and others. It considered dozens of funding models before supporting the sales tax/trust fund.

I’m not against cautiously revisiting the formula, which is statutory and can be revised. Perhaps it could be more precisely aimed at pressing water issues that have come into sharper focus since 2010.

But zeroing-out recreation and other outdoor spending is unacceptable. After all, this is what people voted for, including money for outdoor recreation Iowans enjoy. And this is a state where the DNR budget today is roughly half of what it was back in 2009. We’re robbing REAP to pay parks.

And any formula change, in my view, would have to clear a similar process that yielded the original, with all stakeholders at the table. It can’t be another dose of Statehouse secret sauce, cooked up by a few powerful groups and their legislative allies in a backroom.

Also, if farmers want all or most of the money, nearly $2 billion over 10 years, will they agree to a concrete timeline and deadlines for adopting conservation practices that fit their farms?

“I have a tough time going to the requirements and regulations end,” Ingels told me this past week. He has introduced conservation measures, such as cover crops, on his own farm.

It’s not just Republicans. Democratic candidate for governor Cathy Glasson, a nurse and union organizer from Coralville, opposes filling the fund. She contends the sales tax is regressive and polluters should pay, although she doesn’t say exactly how.

Other Democratic hopefuls are more supportive. But arguably the strongest advocate of the trust fund, state Sen. Nate Boulton, who actually sponsored a bill to raise the sales tax, left the race amid revelations of sexual misconduct.

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This week, state Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, a strong advocate for the trust fund both before and after he left the Republican Party, announced he is not seeking re-election.

Speaking of the election, it, clearly, will be critical. So when candidates ask if they can count on your vote, ask them if they’ll make sure the vote you took in 2010 counts, at long last.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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