Staff Columnist

Be careful what you wish for on water

Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

We heard rumblings this past week about finally filling Iowa’s empty Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust fund. But can we trust this Legislature to do it right?

The Des Moines Register reported that a pair of GOP legislative leaders left the door open, at least a crack. Senate President Charles Schneider of West Des Moines and House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow of Urbandale told the Greater Des Moines Partnership that a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase needed to fill the voter-approved fund is gaining support among lawmakers.

The partnership, Des Moines’ economic development agency, supports the sales tax increase, which would collect $175 million annually for an array of water quality, conservation and recreation projects. Voters created the constitutionally protected fund in 2010, but lawmakers have refused to pass a sales tax increase need to fill it, despite a series of polls showing broad public support.

“Every year that seems to build a little more momentum,” Hagenow said, according to the paper. They made no promises the issue would be on the Legislature’s agenda, but did say lobbying by business leaders could have an effect.

I asked Republican State Rep. Lee Hein, a farmer from Monticello who will chair the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, whether he sees the sales tax increase as a live round in 2019.

“House Republicans haven’t caucused yet, so I am unsure what the interest level is. I am not ruling anything else out at this point and will keep an open mind on the subject,” Hein said in an email.

I’m skeptical Republicans are all that interested in a trust fund tax. The GOP governor and secretary of agriculture ran on legislation approved last year, defeating rivals who favor the tax increase.

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And this is “big table” season for lawmakers. Asked about any issue under the sun, they simply say “everything is on the table.” By Jan. 14 when lawmakers return, that table will be teetering under the weight of all the stuff they’ve pledged to “take a look at.”

Schneider and Hagenow told a group what it wanted to hear without really committing to anything. It’s a time-honored tradition. It may have started with territorial Gov. Robert Lucas, but I can’t confirm.

A wager that water quality will be a back-burner issue, maybe even banished from the kitchen, still is a pretty good bet.

But maybe all the polls and a lobbying push by dozens of groups are having an effect. News coverage of the problem, including Erin Jordan’s superb Gazette investigation of the ineffectiveness of multistate Mississippi River cleanup efforts, may be sinking in. Perhaps a small group of Republicans who support the trust fund tax is growing. Anything is possible under the Golden Dome of Wisdom, even wisdom.

Still, be careful what you wish for, folks.

If lawmakers do take up the trust fund in 2019, odds are they’ll pop the hood on a formula approved nearly a decade ago for how those dollars would be spent. The fund is in the Constitution, but the funding formulas is a plain old statute lawmakers can alter.

Under the current formula, as much as 60 percent of the trust fund proceeds could go to various programs aimed at improving water, including efforts to reduce fertilizer runoff fouling Iowa waterways and flowing into the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone. It also includes dollars for lakes, trails and the state Resource Enhancement and Protection, or REAP, program. REAP provides grants for local conservation, parks and cultural projects and has been chronically underfunded.

The Iowa Farm Bureau insists the formula should be “redefined” to focus mainly on runoff reduction efforts under the Nutrient Reduction Strategy — Iowa’s voluntary blueprint for cutting nitrate and phosphorus pollution from cropland. The group wants “minimal emphasis on land acquisition, recreational trails or REAP.”

It’s worth noting that no trust fund dollars can be spent on involuntary land buys. It’s also worth noting many Iowans who voted to create the fund wanted some of it spent on outdoor recreation.

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So the Farm Bureau wants most of the money to go to farmers, and mostly through programs administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. The department is run by Ag Secretary Mike Naig, who the Farm Bureau worked mightily to elect in November, even dispatching an affiliated group to solicit corporate contributions for a TV ad campaign.

I’m not saying the formula can’t be revised. But the current version was created through a bipartisan process that brought a wide variety of stakeholders to the table. If lawmakers want to convene a similar group to take a fresh look, I’m all for it.

But we know from recent experience that’s not likely to happen in this Legislature. It’s more likely a new formula will pop out of a backroom some odd Tuesday morning, looking an awful lot like what the Farm Bureau wants. It could be the law of the land by the following Tuesday.

So it’s possible nothing will happen, again, on the trust fund front. But, sadly, that may be for the best if the only other choice is allowing powerful ag interests to commandeer the environmental conversation.

That, too, is a time-honored Iowa tradition, along with dirty water.

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

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