DES MOINES — A bipartisan call Wednesday to address water-quality concerns with a constitutionally protected sales tax increase approved by Iowa voters in 2010 was met with skepticism from Gov. Terry Branstad, who doubted there was legislative support to approve that approach this session.
Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, took to the Iowa Senate floor seeking “courage” and “leadership” from legislators in an election-year session to enact a voter-authorized, three-eighths of a penny boost in the state sales tax to generate revenue for environmental, conservation and recreational projects that would protect and improve Iowa’s natural resources.
Johnson dismissed water-quality plans put forward by the governor and Iowa House members as “shell games” that offer a temporary fix, falling short of a permanent, constitutionally protected trust fund that cannot be altered by future Legislatures or governors.
Speaking directly to the people of Iowa who might be watching the live stream of Wednesday’s Senate proceedings, Johnson said: “You are being stiffed. You are being robbed. Your votes are being stolen again” by elected officials ignoring a funding mechanism ratified by 63 percent of 2010 voters.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said Johnson was “right on all counts,” noting that Iowans voted to finance the natural resources trust fund and have told legislators they don’t support addressing water-quality concerns by siphoning money away from future school infrastructure needs as the governor has proposed. He said elected officials “ought to respect the will of the people” on both counts.
“Water quality is a critical issue that we have ignored for far too long in this state,” Quirmbach said. “The voters have told us how they want us to deal with this, how to come up with the money to help farmers and to help municipalities deal with this issue.”
However, Branstad — who proposed a plan to shift a share of future school infrastructure sales tax revenue to water-quality needs — said he offered the “bold, comprehensive” alternative to spur legislative action without raising taxes.
“There’s not support in the Legislature to deal with it,” Branstad told reporters. “If they wanted to, they could have done that last year or the year before or whatever. There’s not support to pass it. I think we’ve got an alternative that’s going to provide funding between now and the year 2029.”
The GOP governor said he was hopeful the measure would pass the GOP-led Iowa House and get taken up by Democrats who control the Iowa Senate.
“I think we need to have a reliable source of funding beyond that and I’m willing to work with the Legislature to deal with that. Let’s at least do this this year and then come back and do additional things next year if need be,” Branstad said. “We’re willing to consider the three-eighths cent going for natural resources as well as school infrastructure in the future.”
However, Johnson said the approaches put forward by the House and the governor “just won’t work” and fail to provide the money needed to improve quality of life in Iowa that will keep young people in Iowa and attract outsiders looking for employment, education and recreational opportunities.
“Don’t be fooled by the shell games going on elsewhere in this building,” Johnson said during his floor speech.
“If we don’t improve that quality of life, if we don’t assure that quality of life, the 10-cent per gallon tax increase that we approved on our fuel taxes will do nothing but build a giant exit ramp out of this state.
The need is immediate,” he said.
“Let’s lead, let’s show some courage in the Iowa Senate and let’s pass a dedicated tax to a dedicated, permanent constitutionally protected fund,” Johnson added.
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