A sad tradition of shortchanging our resources

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The first of many doses of bad news spawned by Iowa’s 2018 budget mess involves a cut in natural resources programs. This should come as no surprise to Iowans who care about environmental stewardship.

The environment often takes the first hit when Statehouse leaders face budget woes. This time, the ax fell on the Department of Natural Resources’ Forestry Bureau and assorted programs subject to a $1.2 million budget cut. The Forestry Bureau is no more, along with the DNR’s Trail Crew, a program that partnered with federal AmeriCorps workers to make repairs to state park infrastructure. Iowa no longer will employ a state geologist or an animal feeding operations coordinator.

A $1.2 million cut doesn’t sound like much until you consider the history. In Fiscal Year 2009, the DNR’s natural resources operation budget approached $22.1 million. The budget approved for Fiscal year 2018 provides $11.3 million, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. So the latest cut is one more step down a steep, declining trail.

This year, the Legislature also gutted funding for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which led the way in developing farming practices aimed at reducing harm to our water and soil. This Legislature also failed to take meaningful action on Iowa’s water quality crisis.

To be fair, shortchanging the environment is a long Statehouse tradition. Iowa’s Resource Enhancement and Protection, or REAP, program has been perennially underfunded by both parties for two decades. In 2014, Gov. Terry Branstad, worried about a one-month revenue dip, used line-item vetoes to slash millions of dollars in additional resources for REAP and clean water programs.

More than 60 percent of Iowans voted in 2010 to create a constitutionally protected trust fund to provide dollars for natural resources and outdoor recreation programs. But our state leaders have refused to approve a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase to fill the fund. Instead, they’ve found it far more politically palatable to hand out more tax cuts, credits and giveaways, the sort of special interest gifts that have pushed Iowa’s budget over a cliff.

DNR officials insist Iowans won’t notice the latest round of cuts. That’s likely true, and it’s exactly why environmental efforts get the ax. The effects of such cuts are generational, not immediate. Slashing the forestry bureau, for example, could have a real, negative effect on efforts to sustain the state’s woodlands, with serious consequences for soil erosion, flooding and water quality.

But those consequences likely won’t be realized before the next election. And under the Golden Dome, it’s often stewardship of political power that matters most.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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