DES MOINES — Representatives of conservation, environmental and outdoor recreation groups turned out in force Tuesday to support a state sales tax increase that would be earmarked for enhancing Iowa’s natural resources, an effort designed to keep future generations from leaving for other places that have invested in those amenities.
“It’s a great day to celebrate everything green,” Fort Dodge resident Matt Cosgrove told a standing-room crowd of people who jammed a Senate committee room for a St. Patrick’s Day hearing on a bill seeking a boost in the state sales tax to aid natural resources.
A three-member Senate Natural Resources and Environment subcommittee unanimously supported Senate File 357, which seeks to raise the state’s 6 percent sales tax by 3/8 of a penny effective July 1, 2016, and transfer the $120 million to $180 million it would generate to the constitutionally protected natural resources and outdoor recreation trust fund approved by voters in 2010.
The policy issue actually fell victim to this month’s “funnel” deadline but Sen. Dick Dearden, D-Des Moines, said he was seeking a procedural move to have the measure referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which would resurrect it as a tax-policy measure exempt from ineligibility rules. Deaden said the bill faces hurdles, but added “it’s not dead, I’ll put it that way.”
Cosgrove noted that 70 of Iowa’s 99 counties lost population in the last three years and that trend would continue unless Iowa invests in quality of life improvements that make it a fun place for young people to live. He said the first thing outsiders looking at Fort Dodge ask about is the local schools, parks and trails.
Bob Riley, who has served on a number of state panels and has agriculture-related business interests, told the subcommittee that the Legislature recently addressed the state’s transportation infrastructure and now needs to turn its attention to its agricultural infrastructure to “slow the flow” of water as a way to conserve Iowa’s soil and other resources.
“This is the infrastructure bill for agriculture in this state,” he said.
Advocates handed out a list of 90 Iowa groups, businesses and foundations that endorse funding the state’s natural resources and outdoor recreation trust fund. Clay County resident Dan Heissel, speaking for the Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards noted the activities also support tens of thousands of jobs by drawing 24 million visitors to Iowa’s 99 counties who spend $851.5 million annually.
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Dearden said the bill is bring together bipartisan support from rural Republicans and urban Democrats, while Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, chief sponsor of the bill, said concerns raised over water quality in Iowa and other issues have convinced him it’s time to direct more state resources to soil and water conservation, parks, REAP, county conservation projects, watershed improvements and water quality programs as voters supported overwhelmingly in 2010.
“Let’s give it a really big push,” Johnson told the crowded committee room. “We need to do this. Let’s do it this year.”
While there is interest across the Capitol rotunda, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he did not think the issue would get very far this legislative session.
“I think it’s something that most members are interested in talking about, but the House isn’t looking at raising the sales tax right now, so I don’t think we have any particular interest in doing that,” he said. “Figuring out a way to get this money into the fund, I think, is a conversation we’re probably willing to have, but I don’t know if it will be this year.”
Currently, Iowa collects a 5 percent sales tax on eligible goods and services, and an extra statewide penny of sales tax is assessed for school infrastructure needs. The 2010 initiative that established the constitutionally protected trust fund indicated that 3/8 of the next one-cent sales tax increase would be earmarked for that purpose, but Johnson said advocates are only pushing for the partial penny, not a full penny hike in the overall sales tax.