DES MOINES — The Iowa House “receded” Tuesday from its position on paying for water quality improvements and instead accepted a bill adopted last year by the Senate — and preferred by Gov. Kim Reynolds, who said she would be proud to make it the first legislation she signs into law as governor.
Nine months after coming to a stalemate with the Senate that delayed adjournment of the 2017 session, House members this time approved Senate File 512.
SF 512 is more or less the same bill the House approved in 2016, but last year replaced with House File 612. The Senate refused to go along with that new version in the final hours of the 2017 session. The chambers disagreed on, among other things, how much money would go to water projects and where it would come from.
SF 512 will provide $282 million over 12 years. In the first year, $4 million will be available and the funding will increase over time.
The money will come from converting an existing sales tax on metered water to an excise tax and, as Vision Iowa bonds are repaid, using those funds, too.
HF 612 would have tapped general fund revenues and the metered water tax. It also would have extended an existing sales tax for school construction but diverted money from it to water quality projects also. Although it would have provided less money initially, it would have allowed the Iowa Finance Authority to sell bonds.
Tuesday, the House voted 54-46 to retreat from its position and then approved SF 512 by a 59-41 vote, with four Democrats supporting it and three Republicans voting against it.
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Opponents of SF 512 have called it weak and predict its passage will be the end of legislation intended to improve water quality in Iowa lakes and rivers. But floor manager Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, promised to introduce additional legislation.
“I think this is a good bill,” he said before the House began debate. “It’s a good, long-term, sustainable funding source for water quality, something that we have not had in the state of Iowa. It’s something that, in the absence of anything else, is an awesome step up and it’s the beginning conversation of future conversations.”
Not everyone agreed.
“Why this? Why now?” asked Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City. Noting that the Legislature likely will have to make midyear cuts to the current year’s budget, she said lawmakers should balance the budget first.
Passionate opposition came from Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, who last year was the floor manager of HF 612.
“I did not come down here to check a box,” he said. “Just because the words ‘water quality’ are in the title of a bill does not make me proud to vote for it so I can put it on a postcard when I go campaigning.”
It was appropriate the motion was to “recede,” he said, because the House was going backward from its support last year of a bill that was “wildly bipartisan, was collaborative in nature, inclusive of most all of the interested parties.”
He doubts the Senate will have interest in additional water quality measures, based on comments he heard last year by key senators.
“I will literally be shocked if any substantive bill comes out this session in terms of improving SF 512 because if it could be done, it would be being done right now,” he said.
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Wills, who also is the water quality coordinator for the Iowa Great Lakes watershed, acknowledged that the money envision in SF 512 may not seem adequate to address what has been described as a $4 billion problem. However, he said, the state will be able to leverage the new funding to attract additional revenue.
Last year, Wills said, Iowa used $22 million in state water quality funding to leverage $400 million in other state, federal and local money.
Wills pointed out that SF 512 includes a provision that would use revenue from a constitutionally protected conservation trust fund for water quality. In 2010, voters approved a state constitutional amendment that called for using three-eighths of a cent on the next increase in the state sales tax for conservation and outdoor recreation.
But increasing the sales tax was not part of that ballot measure, leaving the decision to legislators — who have not agreed to an increase.
“I am proud that the first piece of legislation I will sign as governor will be a water quality bill,” Reynolds said. “This will go a long way toward our goal of providing a long-term, dedicated and growing revenue source to help fund and scale best practices through the already successful Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”
Support for SF 512 came from not only the Farm Bureau, but a variety of farm-related groups, the League of Cities, the Association of Counties, county supervisors, Iowa Pork Producers, Corn Growers Association, Conservation Districts and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, according to lobbyists’ declarations.
Opposition came from the Farmers Union, Izaak Walton League, the Iowa Environmental Council, the Sierra Club and the American Heart Association.
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