Branstad can veto environmental bucks, but the bill will still come due

The Capitol Building in Des Moines. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Capitol Building in Des Moines. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

If you care about water quality, soil preservation or local recreation and conservation projects, Gov. Terry Branstad sent you a clear message Friday evening.

Go jump in an impaired lake. Or maybe a river. He really doesn’t care.

Under the flimsy guise of fiscal responsibility, and with timing intended to bury his actions on the back pages, Branstad used his veto pen to slash approved funding for the Resource Enhancement and Protection, or REAP, program, and to ax bucks for several water and soil conservation programs.

Bipartisan legislative majorities approved $25 million for REAP this year, its 25th anniversary, marking the first time since (correction - 1990) that the Legislature lived up to its promise to fund REAP at $20 million annually. Branstad’s vetoes to erased $9 million, breaking the state’s hollow vow again.

Last month, I bet that Branstad would sign REAP funding. I should have known better.

Of the 24 fiscal years REAP has been shafted, Branstad has been governor for 13. He’s a grand champion REAP reaper. The money he vetoed would have gone to conservation and recreation projects chosen by local officials, improving parks, trails, woodland areas, etc. This is a governor who has demonstrated over the years that he’s far more comfortable with edicts from his Statehouse than local decision-making.

Branstad also vetoed $11.2 million for water quality and soil conservation programs administered by the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Just a month ago, Agriculture Sec. Bill Northey was praising lawmakers for providing critical funding. “The governor and lieutenant governor have been strong supporters of the Water Quality Initiative from the beginning and I hope they will approve this funding,” Northey said then. So much for hope.

Of those dollars, Branstad vetoed $3.5 million in matching funds for farmers’ efforts to reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphorus reaching Iowa waterways. That still leaves $4.4 million available, but the state could have done so much more to address a serious problem where we’ve invested far too little. This year, when the ag department offered $2.8 million, 1,000 farmers snapped up the entire pot in two weeks. Clearly, demand is there.

Branstad’s veto of those dollars comes just as Iowa is making some small progress on reducing nutrient levels in major rivers. Apparently, the state can afford $110 million in tax breaks to build a huge fertilizer plant, but not $3.5 million to help farmers keep more fertilizer out of our rivers. Branstad will spend more than that on his re-election campaign.

Another $5 million Branstad vetoed would have helped clear a waiting list of farmers seeking state help in paying for soil conservation practices, $1.2 million would have gone to close ag drainage wells that could allow pollution to reach aquifers and $1.5 million would have paid for local watershed projects. Because the water quality, soil conservation and watershed efforts require one-to-one matching dollars, the true effect of his vetoes is doubled.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising. Branstad always seems to find bucks for the stuff he wants, but with anything else, it’s the empty-pockets routine. Trouble is, shortchanging conservation really isn’t fiscally conservative. In the end, we’re all going to pay for it. Ignoring that is impaired governing.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@sourcemedia.net

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