Staff Columnist

Be very, very quiet. It's hinting season in Iowa

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Leaves are changing. There’s a chill in the air. It must be hinting season in Iowa.

Don’t reach for a phone to report a typo in progress. I’m talking about an autumn ritual beneath the Golden Dome of Wisdom, when politicians begin hinting what they might do when lawmakers migrate back to Des Moines in January.

There’s really nothing quite like calling in a flock of legislators. A fundraiser works great as bait. Before long they’ll start hinting. “Everything’s on the table!” echoes across the countryside. Goosebumps.

Demand details? Aww, now you’ve scared them off.

For those of us who lack direct access to the inner sanctums of Statehouse power, hinting and gathering is all we have. And in recent years, with Republicans controlling the whole joint, hinting season has taken on a more ominous feel. Hinting, it turns out, can lead to hunting.

Which vulnerable group, decades-old law or important institution will be gutted and stuffed? Which hints will become horrendous bills, passed in a flash? And are those hints or merely decoys?

All we can do is watch and wait.

Well, there was some big bill hinting going on in Cedar Rapids earlier this month. GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds hinted she’s working on a plan to potentially fill the long-empty Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. You might remember voting to create it nearly 10 years ago, hoping it would provide tens of millions of dollars to water quality improvement, conservation, parks, recreation areas, trails, etc. Around the Statehouse, it’s known as Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, or IWILL.

“We’ve been talking about IWILL so we’re taking a look at that — that’s a potential possibility of moving forward,” Reynolds said at the recent Iowa Ideas Conference. She didn’t explain further.

I asked her office this week who “we” is and how far these talks have progressed.

“The governor and her team have been talking about IWILL as part of a larger tax reform discussion,” her spokesman, Pat Garrett, said in a one-sentence email.

We’ve been here before.

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Filling the trust fund means raising the sales tax. And some Republicans have been talking for years about how such a sales tax increase could offset the cost of other tax cuts, possibly income or corporate tax reductions. This is called “reform,” a word that has ceased to have real meaning beyond sounding better than “handing out more tax cuts to our friends.”

Last January, Reynolds hinted to our editorial board that an IWILL plan might be in the works. It didn’t happen. But the governor did say it might take a year to put it together. So here we are, maybe.

But what are they putting together? That’s the question.

I asked the governor’s office if Reynolds will alter the trust fund spending formula presented to voters in 2010, which split the money between conservation efforts and outdoor recreation. The formula was the result of deliberations by a long, diverse list of groups and interests, including environmentalists, hunters and agriculture organizations.

But Garrett left that portion of my question unanswered.

Now I wonder, will the formula be gutted and stuffed?

Because The Iowa Farm Bureau, which campaigned against the trust fund in 2010, wants the $180 million or so that would flow into the fund annually to go to on-farm water quality improvement programs, efforts administrated largely by the state agriculture department. Recreation would get much less. The ag department run by Agriculture Sec. Mike Naig, whom the Farm Bureau moved heaven and earth to get elected last fall. These are voluntary programs with no requirements that water actually become demonstrably cleaner.

That’s not what Iowans voted for in 2010. And I’d wager that’s not what most of us want now. It’s also a lousy idea for rural Iowa, which benefits economically from expanded outdoor recreation. But the Farm Bureau is frightened someone might take a sliver of farmland to expand a park.

These are the folks Reynolds listens to. There will be no long, diverse list of interests and groups rewriting the formula.

Look no further than Senate File 512, which Reynolds signed to much fanfare in 2018. Ag interests and then-Ag Sec. Bill Northey lobbied hard for the bill behind the scenes ahead of the 2018 session, urging lawmakers to give Reynolds a quick political win while shoving aside a superior House bill agriculture liked much less.

So in 2020, it’s easy to imagine we may end up with a sales tax increase tied to another round of misguided tax cuts, raising revenue that will flow into a trust fund transformed into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Ag Inc. Talk about goose bumps.

Would they actually pass such an ill-conceived plan? I’ll give you a hint.

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

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