Staff Columnist

Iowa natural resources trust fund awaits a tweak, a bulldozer or gridlock

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)

Can a bulldozing Iowa Legislature learn the virtues of a gentle tweak? Count me as skeptical.

We’ll soon find out whether Gov. Kim Reynolds will use her Condition of the State speech to float a plan for filling the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, approved by Iowa voters in 2010. Instead of funding environmental protection, conservation and recreation for a decade, it still sits empty Skittish Statehouse leaders have refused to enact a sales tax increase to fill it.

There’s now much buzz under the Golden Dome of Wisdom about enacting a one-cent sales tax increase, with three-eighths, roughly $170 million annually, going to the trust fund. The rest, Republicans who run the joint argue, should go for some sort of tax cuts. Maybe another income tax cut. Or maybe the state will cover local mental health funding, resulting in a property tax cut.

One thing the governor and GOP legislative leaders seem to agree on is the trust fund spending formula, passed into law before voters approved the fund, must be changed. They say not enough of the money goes to water quality. Too much goes to recreation stuff, such as trails. You can see their lips move, but it’s the Iowa Farm Bureau’s voice you hear.

Environmental protection groups would like to save the current formula, or fight off big changes.

So will Republicans tweak the formula, or will it they bulldoze it?

Truth is, every slice of the current formula pie can be spent on water.

The 23 percent portion for natural resources can include spending not only on state parks, preserves and wildlife areas but also on wetlands and improvements in rivers, streams and water trails.

The 20 percent slice for soil conservation and water protection can be spent on soil conservation, watershed protection, conservation practices and water quality improvements.

The 11-percent watershed protection account can go toward all manner of watershed improvement efforts through assistance to local and regional communities.

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The chronically underfunded Resource Enhancement and Protection program, or REAP, gets 13 percent. REAP dollars go for local projects that can include water quality improvements.

A 7 percent share for lake restoration, the statute says, “must improve water quality.”

Even the 10 percent share for trails can be spent on the establishment, improvement or expansion of water trails, not just recreation trails on land.

So water already runs through the current formula, which passed 49-0 in the Iowa Senate in March 2010 and 92-7 in the House. Reynolds was among senators who voted yes.

The real problem for Republicans isn’t that the formula doesn’t spend enough on water quality, it’s that the money doesn’t go to the right agencies.

Under the current formula, programs administered by the Department of Natural Resources get 56 percent of the funds. The Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship gets 20 percent exclusively, while sharing another 14 percent with the DNR.

Republicans and their agriculture industry allies, led by the Farm Bureau, want more money to flow into IDALS, which is a far more farmer friendly corner of state government. After all, you may recall a Farm Bureau lobbyist put out a call for cash last fall when it looked like GOP Agriculture Sec. Mike Naig might get beat. Agribusinesses, hog producers and commodity groups made it rain, and Naig pulled out a win. Now for a return on that investment.

True, the DNR also is pretty ag friendly these days. But that could change someday with a new governor. While the agriculture department is far more likely to remain a dependable GOP-controlled ally. Money will flow, with no pesky rules or mandates.

But how much will the governor or lawmakers grab for IDALS?

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Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, water program manager for the Iowa Environmental Council, said recent talks involving her group, the governor and legislators have centered on efforts to incorporate more spending on the state’s voluntary, farm-based Nutrient Reduction Strategy into the formula.

“Currently, work is being done to integrate the priorities in SF 512, most notably the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, into the existing formula in a manner that retains the integrity of the original formula while acknowledging the additional programs that support water policy,” Gronstal Anderson said in an email.

Preserving the integrity of the original formula could be a welcome development. More tweak than bulldozer, maybe. But SF 512 was a lousy bill.

It throws tens of millions of dollars at water quality measures on cropland with no requirements for proving those measures are actually making water cleaner. The bill set no near-term goals for reducing fertilizer runoff. It says only that the NRS’s ultimate goal of reducing nitrate and phosphorus runoff by 45 percent would be met “over time.” Decades, centuries or millennia?

So any mention of 512 is not encouraging.

Best case scenario, our governor unveils a specific plan this week for filling and spending the fund, with tweaks and integrity. Then she takes the lead in pushing for its passage.

Worst case scenario, Reynolds leaves the details up to lawmakers. And we get a bill raising a tax that falls hardest on low-income Iowans while transferring much of the money to landowners through the agriculture department. We’ll also cut those landowners’ property taxes.

Outdoor recreation gets a shrunken sliver of bucks. It’s a dream scenario for the Farm Bureau, which has openly expressed disdain for parks, trails and public lands.

Or, lawmakers do nothing. A Statehouse classic. And perhaps the most likely outcome.

Fortunately, some GOP leaders are saying it could take the entire 100-day session to sort it all out. That leaves plenty of time for an open, accessible and transparent process allowing Iowans to weigh in on how their sales tax dollars should be spent on cleaning up our water, enhancing our quality of life and boosting our economy by making meaningful, measurable progress on both.

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Or maybe it will be like the many other times lawmakers promised gentle tweaks. Be ready for backrooms and bulldozers.

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

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