Government

Iowa lawmakers working on session-ending compromises

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Legislative Democrats are cool to GOP ideas of taking money from other parts of the state’s general fund or infrastructure budgets to finance expanded efforts to improve Iowa’s water quality, a top Iowa Senate leader said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, told reporters that Democrats want to increase funding for water-quality initiatives, but do not think a workable bipartisan proposal has emerged at the Statehouse.

“Several of the plans that we’ve seen are little more than shell games — moving money around, taking money away from somebody for the sake of somebody else,” Gronstal said. “Most of those plans aren’t going to work very smoothly up here.”

Gov. Terry Branstad, who had proposed tying water quality and school infrastructure together in a long-term strategy to address both priorities, conceded Monday that his idea may not be embraced, and he would be willing to work with lawmakers to address water quality this session.

However, he has said he will not approve an extension of the school infrastructure sales tax set to expire in 2029 if a share of that money is not part of the long-term plan to address water quality.

Meanwhile, majority House Republicans are working on a separate proposal to fund water-quality programs out of a water metering tax that generates about $28 million annually. Gronstal said majority Senate Democrats also are formulating concepts to “help us get started” but offered few details.

“We’ve seen an outline of a plan from the House Republicans; we’ve obviously seen the governor’s plan that takes $406 million away from K-through-12 education, from school infrastructure. We have concerns about that,” Gronstal said.

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House Ways and Means Committee members were working on a bill that would replace the sales tax Iowans pay on metered water with a 6 percent excise tax that would be deposited in an Iowa Finance Authority-administered revolving loan fund to help cities improve their water and waste water treatment facilities. The excise tax would raise about $28 million a year.

Committee Chairman Tom Sands, R-Wapello, said the bill’s provisions represented the “backbone framework” for funding water quality. The excise tax was chosen “because those that are paying will get the benefit,” he said. That’s why it will go to municipal water and waste water improvements, not farm-related projects.

Sands said he hoped the House approach would receive Senate consideration, noting that “the options are using existing money, raising taxes or diverting money.”

Gronstal said key legislators were “working through” a host of budget decisions this week and hoped to agree on details of a fiscal 2017 state spending plan “relatively quickly,” telling reporters “we would like to adjourn on time.”

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