Iowa Farm Bureau should get behind Iowa Water and Land Legacy funding

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With apologies to Schoolhouse Rock, a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase needed to fill the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust fund was, in 2015 and 2016, only a bill. And it didn’t get very far at all on Iowa’s Capitol Hill.

It wasn’t for lack of support. According to legislative lobbyist declarations, SF 504 had the support of 36 organizations and groups. It’s a diverse list, including environmental groups such as the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Iowa Environmental Council, urban interests, such as The Greater Des Moines Partnership and the Iowa League of Cities, conservation organizations, including Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, and agricultural interests, including the Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa Corn Growers Association.

Snowmobilers, bicyclists, bowhunters, landscape architects and children’s advocates signed on. According to a state fiscal analysis, the bill could provide $200 million annually for water quality improvements, watershed management and other environmental and recreation initiatives.

Just four groups registered against the measure. The list included Iowans for Tax Relief, which has historically opposed tax increases, Americans for Prosperity, a group found by the billionaire Koch brothers to champion cutting taxes and regulations, and the Iowa Growth Project, which also promotes conservative economic policy objectives.

The fourth group? The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

The Farm Bureau opposed a 2010 constitutional amendment ballot measure that created the trust fund, also known as the Iowa Water and Land Legacy. The organization’s late play to halt the measure failed, with 63 percent of Iowans voting in favor of the amendment.

“First and foremost, this is about a constitutional amendment, and our members said when this was put to the public in 2008 and 2009 that using the Constitution isn’t the right way to direct the budget — the legislature should make that decision,” said Laurie Johns, spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau, in an email. She said the Farm Bureau also has concerns about how the trust fund money would be spent.

Since then, the group also has opposed any move to fill the fund by raising the sales tax.

But that could change when delegates from across the state gather on Sept. 7-8 for the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Summer Policy Conference in West Des Moines. The meetings are intended to help set a direction the organization’s state and national policy objectives.

“Those issues include conservation funding, (among others) and anything can happen,” Johns said.

Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill said it must happen.

“I think we have a moment in time to develop a committed and reliable funding source for water quality and it’s up to all of us to work hard on that,” Hill told members in Poweshiek County back in March, according to a Farm Bureau account of the meeting posted online. “I really think we only have a few years to get this right.”

We’ve long argued the constitutionally protected trust fund and a sales tax increase to fill it are the best options for creating that committed and reliable water quality funding. It’s time for the Iowa Farm Bureau to get on board and throw its considerable support behind the effort.

Why single out the Farm Bureau? Because it’s no ordinary player in Iowa politics. It’s the state’s largest farm group, and no major water quality initiative will succeed without farmers at the table.

During the past three election cycles, in 2010, 2012 and 2014, according to campaign disclosure reports, the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Political Action Committee spent more than $650,000 on campaign donations to state and federal candidates in Iowa, including numerous legislative races. The PAC currently has more than $360,000 in its account as the 2016 election cycle heats up.

During the last six fiscal years, according to disclosure forms filed with the state, the Iowa Farm Bureau has spent nearly $700,000 on lobbying the state’s legislative and executive branches.

Clearly, the Farm Bureau doesn’t win every battle, but its influence at the Statehouse is unquestionable. In 2011, Farm Bureau members got behind a push to raise Iowa’s fuel tax for road construction. It didn’t pass until 2015. But at a critical moment, with the issue hanging in the balance, more than 200 Farm Bureau members converged on the Statehouse to lobby for the increase. The following week, the gas tax boost was approved and signed, with the votes of some rural Republicans who would normally oppose tax increases and the signature of a governor long allied with the Farm Bureau.

Like the roads issue, Iowa is faced with the need for a multibillion-dollar effort to clean up waterways impaired largely by farm pollution and control future runoff. Like the Road Use Tax Fund, the Iowa Water and Land Legacy is constitutionally protected fund that can’t be scooped for other uses.

It’s true, the Farm Bureau did back an Iowa House Republican water quality plan floated this year that scooped gambling taxes and the proceeds from a tax on metered water to provide more than $400 million annually over 13 years largely for existing programs within the Department of Agriculture. Trouble is, the plan takes money from existing budget needs, and there’s no guarantee future legislatures won’t pull the plug.

If the Farm Bureau can see the wisdom of a gas tax increase, surely its members can see the benefits of creating a permanent, reliable source of environmental funding. Iowa voters did in 2010.

If not the benefits, then perhaps the threats. The Farm Bureau has decried the possibility of federal water regulations and has mobilized to oppose a lawsuit brought by the Des Moines Water Works against rural counties over fertilizer contamination. Regulations and more lawsuits are likely unless the state does far more to address water quality challenges.

“It’s time to close the door on lawsuits. It’s time to close the door on EPA regulations. It’s time to open the door on a new era of cooperation between urban and rural Iowa,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said at a Linn County Farm Bureau meeting earlier this month. He’s urged the organization to support a sales tax increase to fill the trust fund.

Longtime Linn County Farm Bureau member Curt Zingula was receptive to Corbett’s message.

“I’m hoping the Farm Bureau will review it,” Zingula said after Corbett’s speech. “It would be good to review it and go along with the corn and soybean association.

“I think we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg for lawsuits,” Zingula said.

We understand there are Farm Bureau members flatly opposed to a tax increase. And we understand there are environmental advocates who don’t believe the Farm Bureau can be part of any acceptable water quality solution. The animosity, at times, between opposing interests during Iowa’s intensifying water quality debate has been palpable.

But what we also understand is unyielding confrontation is unlikely to yield much in the way of workable, politically realistic solutions. Environmentalists and farmers are going to have to figure this out together. A move by the Farm Bureau to join the many groups supporting Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy would be a great start.

A start, because, as we’ve written many times before, finding a funding source is only the beginning. After that, our leaders must decide how best to spend those dollars, and how we’ll monitor the success of initiatives they fund.

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