Water plan breaks ground, but still falls short

Governor Terry Branstad speaks to a group of farmers, conservationists and government employees at the Weber Farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2016. Governor Branstad heard from farmers and members of several area watershed conservation initiatives, as well as representatives from the city of Cedar Rapids, about conservation practices in the large watershed area that encompasses Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, known as the Middle Cedar watershed. Branstad praised the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which is a collaboration between the city of Cedar Rapids, upstream conservation groups and local farmers who are working together to both reduce nitrate levels in the Cedar River and improve soil health within the Middle Cedar watershed. He said there is a need to incentivize the adoption of conservation practices such as cover crops and saturated buffers, but he hopes that the positive outcomes seen in Benton, Tama and Black Hawk counties will also encourage farmers to take action on their own. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Governor Terry Branstad speaks to a group of farmers, conservationists and government employees at the Weber Farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2016. Governor Branstad heard from farmers and members of several area watershed conservation initiatives, as well as representatives from the city of Cedar Rapids, about conservation practices in the large watershed area that encompasses Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, known as the Middle Cedar watershed. Branstad praised the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which is a collaboration between the city of Cedar Rapids, upstream conservation groups and local farmers who are working together to both reduce nitrate levels in the Cedar River and improve soil health within the Middle Cedar watershed. He said there is a need to incentivize the adoption of conservation practices such as cover crops and saturated buffers, but he hopes that the positive outcomes seen in Benton, Tama and Black Hawk counties will also encourage farmers to take action on their own. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Gov. Terry Branstad is floating a new proposal for funding efforts to clean up and protect Iowa’s waterways. In one respect, it breaks new ground.

Branstad told an audience in Urbandale this week he favors extending a current one-cent statewide sales tax for school infrastructure needs beyond its scheduled 2029 expiration date. After that, the governor’s plan would direct three-eighths of that cent to the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Five-eighths would go to education.

It’s the first time Branstad, or any top Republican Statehouse leader, has proposed filling the trust fund, a constitutionally protected funding stream approved by Iowa voters in 2010. The fund would provide as much as $200 million annually for environmental efforts, including water quality initiatives. We’ve long advocated for boosting the sales tax to fill the still-empty fund.

The bad news is Branstad would wait more than a decade to fill it. And as with his previous proposal for using the school tax to benefit water, he pits education against the environment.

In the meantime, between now and 2029, he favors an Iowa House GOP plan for spending $470 million annually from gambling taxes and a tax on metered water on water quality programs administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. But that proposal lacks any meaningful timelines, standards or benchmarks for measuring whether those programs are making progress. It also siphons existing money away from a state budget already hamstrung by previous legislative commitments to property tax relief and other initiatives.

We still believe a sales tax increase to fill the fund now is the state’s best option. Judging by the overwhelming 2010 vote, we believe that’s what Iowans want.

But most of these high-dollar trial balloons on water quality are little more than hot air without solid specifics on how money would be spent, how that spending would be administered and how outcomes would be measured. Programs and projects should be held publicly accountable, with testing data that’s publicly available. These are the tough calls our leaders must make before deciding which dollars to tap.

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We welcome Branstad’s acknowledgment of the trust fund as a vehicle for water quality efforts. But it’s a toe in the water. Iowans will be expecting a deeper dive.

• Gazette editorials reflect the consensus opinion of The Gazette Editorial Board. Share your comments and ideas with us:(319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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