Winding water path gets muddy

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

It’s all as clear as water.

In 2010, you may recall, more than 60 percent of Iowa voters approved the creation of a constitutional trust fund providing funding for water quality, soil conservation, outdoor recreation and other environmental efforts. Once the people spoke, all the Legislature and governor had to do was raise the sales tax by three-eighths of a cent to fill it.

But lawmakers, Republicans in particular, and Gov. Terry Branstad aren’t going to do that. Iowans may have appeared to vote for the trust fund, but our leaders now insist that’s really not what we wanted. Actually. we approved a trust fund that we do not want filled. Maybe never. Why? Who knows? Perhaps there was a full moon on Election Day.

Instead, the governor insists on funding water quality improvement efforts by extending a sales tax originally approved by Iowa voters to be spent on school buildings. Again, voter intentions may be subject to reinterpretation. If that doesn’t make sense, it’s because you didn’t read the very fine print at the bottom of your ballot.

But lawmakers are cool to Branstad’s plan. Some want to extend the school building tax for use on school buildings. The governor says he’s opposed to that idea. He’s tired of greedy school districts grasping for dollars. If only these superintendents would get together on a fertilizer plant.

So some House Republicans have filed a bill that would convert the current sales tax charged on our water bills for metered water into an excise tax and use $28 million in annual proceeds to help drinking water utilities upgrade their operations. A fine idea, perhaps, but it provides no money to address the source of pollution flowing from farm fields into waterways.

So the fund Iowans approved to tackle water quality issues won’t be filled because, apparently, that’s what we want. The tax Iowans approved for school infrastructure can’t be extended to continue addressing school infrastructure because the governor wants part of it for water quality. And the compromise plan is swell but won’t address the core issue that started this whole debate in the first place.

I need a drink. And not water.

Truthfully, I didn’t expect this Legislature to craft a grand water quality compromise this year. I did expect some progress. Turns out that was too much to expect.


There was a time I welcomed all of the many splendored plans for water quality funding, all the novel taxes, checkoffs and charges. But instead of paving a path to action, the waters have been muddied. Lawmakers have become stuck in tbe muck.

So I’m with Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, and others who point to the trust fund as the best way forward. Unlike all other plans, it was approved by voters. Unlike many other plans, it provides serious dollars. Unlike most other plans, it has some bipartisan support with potential for growth.

It’s not perfect, but it’s possible. We can demand sticking it to farmers, shake our fists at the Des Moines Water Works or make some progress. We can spin our wheels, wait for the Statehouse to churn out some unrecognizable sausage, or we can take the clear option sitting right in front of us.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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