Members of the Iowa House voted swiftly this week to pass a water quality bill approved last year in the Iowa Senate. Its backers immediately proclaimed victory for the state’s environment. Some called it an important step toward cleaning up waterways. Gov. Kim Reynolds hailed the first bill to reach her desk and will sign it.
But it strikes us as more of a political victory than a win for water. As steps go, the legislation will make far too little progress on the state’s long slog toward significantly curtailing polluted farm runoff. And what progress it does make will be tough to accurately judge.
That’s because Senate File 512 contains no requirements for measuring the true success of runoff reduction projects it pays for. It provides dollars over the next 12 years, ramping up a small initial investment to $27 million annually. But the legislation will leave us to guess whether that money actually is paying for cleaner water. There are no goals, timelines or bench marks in the bill. Iowa law keeps identities of landowners receiving dollars confidential, providing yet another barrier to accountability.
Of course, any new investment is welcome. Projects it funds might have value. But the funding isn’t protected. Future legislatures facing budget woes, calls for revised priorities or changing political winds can snatch away this new funding at any time. It’s happened again and again to state environmental programs.
For the eighth year in a row, legislators have ignored the will of 63 percent of Iowa voters, who approved the creation of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in 2010. The constitutionally protected fund would provide upward of $180 million annually for outdoor recreation and conservation efforts, including water quality programs. But lawmakers once again have refused to approve a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase to fill it, despite polls showing broad support for an increase.
Instead, lawmakers cobbled together a shaky pile of dollars from a metered water tax and gambling taxes. And House Republicans who passed a superior water quality bill last year caved to political pressure and accepted the inferior Senate bill, favored by the agriculture department, Farm Bureau and other large farm groups.
This should not end the discussion on water in 2018. Lawmakers should take action to improve what they passed, adding accountability measures and other changes. The sales tax increase should remain on the table as tax reform discussions move forward. Senate File 512 should not be the last water bill to reach the governor’s desk.
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And if the Legisalture won’t act, there is an election coming. Iowans should demand a far better clean water strategy than this, and vote accordingly.
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