Staff Columnist

Invest in Iowa push yields to a pandemic

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus during a news conference at the State Emergency O
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)

Remember about three lifetimes ago, or was it three weeks, when the Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Invest in Iowa Act was a hot topic of conversation? Barely? Same here.

It was a big ‘ol bill that would raise the sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, replace a large chunk of local mental health funds with state bucks and cut income taxes again. The governor was barnstorming the state to sell it to Iowans. Critics, including your columnist, were pointing out its deficiencies, namely that it would pump too little new money into recreation and environmental protection, instead covering a lot of existing funding.

It was a trendy subject, right before all the sheltering in place and toilet paper hoarding.

Reynolds actually got asked about it at one of her COVID-19 pandemic response briefings this past week. It was a nice trip down memory lane, back to when other issues still existed.

“Well as proud as I am of the Invest in Iowa Act, I have to admit that’s kind of on hold right now while we really meet the needs of Iowans,” said Reynolds, who quickly switched topics back to tracking down needed medical equipment and other pressing pandemic problems.

As a practical matter, it’s really tough to pass sweeping legislation with no Legislature. And as the pandemic threat grew a couple of weeks ago, the Golden Dome of Wisdom got wise and took a 30-day break. That would mean a mid-April return, but that’s clearly no sure thing.

When it reconvenes in some fashion, all the Legislature has to do is pass a budget plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That will be a tough enough job with state revenues plunging amid an economic downturn spawned by business closures and curtailed economic activity. In any event, lawmakers are unlikely to have the kind of time needed to dig into a bill as ambitious as Invest in Iowa. Even before social distancing became the rule, more than a few lawmakers were keeping their distance from the governor’s plan.

So our lawmakers are not available to debate the merits of outdoor recreation. But Iowans sure are appreciating it right now. It’s about all we’ve got, besides puzzles and day drinking.

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State parks are open, although officials smartly discourage gatherings beyond 10 people. Maybe you’ve noticed an increased volume of trail walkers and riders, enjoying a solitary breath of fresh air at a safe distance. Playgrounds and other facilities are off limits, but open spaces remain fair game with sensible limits. Someday, the weather will warm up.

Beyond being stark raving stir crazy, some of us are lacing up our walking shoes as a four-alarm health emergency makes us wish we were a lot healthier. Will all of my sitting around staring at screens eventually put me in the ICU? Much, much sooner than I thought, perhaps.

Public health groups lined up to support filling the trust fund and its original funding formula that spent a large share of new dollars on parks, trails and other outdoor recreation. Getting out and moving around is good for Iowa’s health.

Reynolds’ plan spends a lot less on outdoor recreation, particularly on trails projects and park expansions disliked by the Iowa Farm Bureau. It also places limits and hurdles in the way of spending on recreation uses.

Iowans love our state’s many outdoor recreational opportunities, even when not hunkered down. It’s one big reason they voted in 2010 to create a trust fund plan promising many more of them.

Months from now there will be an election with legislative seats on the ballot. At some distant point, we’ll return to talking about other issues, like Invest in Iowa, and how best to fill the trust fund. We could also discuss doing other things to make Iowa healthier, long-term, in a number of ways. Post-crisis, the best decision could be to make smart investments in health care, the environment and recreation instead of cutting taxes again and again.

It’s worth thinking about, now that many of us have a lot of time to think. Ponder it on your next walk, run or ride.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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